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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Reading diary, #49

I seem to have made up for the last post’s male heaviness, so to speak…

Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). A lot of people whose opinion I respect had said approving things about this book, and yet within less than a year after its publication conversation about it seemed to fade away. Nonetheless, it remained on my radar, and when I placed an order with Aqueduct Press – an excellent small press, by the way – I included it; or it may have been that I wanted this book and waited until there were others before ordering it, I forget which. Either way, that order also contained Flesh and Wires (see here) and A Day in Deep Freeze (see here), so it was a good purchase. All of which makes it a little embarrassing it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Necessary Ill. And, even more embarrassingly, I loved it. I don’t think it’s perfect, and at least one of the reasons I love it is because one of its elements fits so badly. It’s by no means a beautifully-written book, although its prose is generally better than average for sf, and its world-building does feel a bit hit and miss in places. But it’s premise has so much going for it, that I couldn’t help liking the book. At some point in the future, some babies are born neuter. They’re considered freaks, and those that do make it to adulthood disguise themselves as gendered people (those that haven’t had gender surgically forced on them as kids, that is). By the time the novel’s story starts, there’s a secret colony of them living deep in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The earth is also in serious trouble, thanks to a failing climate and scarce resources, and cannot handle its current population levels. Some of the neuters engineer plagues, which they release throughout the US, in an effort to cull the population. Jin is one such “spreader”, and is the chief character of the novel. While travelling about Texas, carefully spreading one of its plagues, Jin tangles with a man who seems to know a lot about the spreaders, and who appears to be behind an anti-neuter movement which is gathering steam. Meanwhile, Sandy, a young woman rescued by another neut, is now living with the neuts in their underground home. The plot spends a while exploring the world and the chief characters – but it’s all good stuff – before turning into the redemption of Jin, and by extension, all the neuts. This is done through a feature film about Jin, lightly fictionalised, and made by all the neuts who have infiltrated the film industry (inasmuch as they’re disguised as gendered people). The secret world of the neuts is handled really well, and if some of the science behind the plagues doesn’t quite sound like it could be true, it’s all presented with sufficient scientific grounding to be plausible. I think this book will make it into my top five for the first half of 2017, and might even make it to the end of year one.

Valerian and Laureline 16: Hostages of Ultralum, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1996, France). I do love this series, but not every album in it is all that memorable. And this, er, is one of the unmemorable ones. Ultralum is an important mineral used to fuel spaceships, but it only exists in areas of high spatio-temporal instability. Valerian and Laureline are still bouncing around after a previous album saw Galaxity, the pan-galactic peace-keeping organisation for which they worked, wiped out of existence and out of memory. There are a few references in this story to earlier albums, but from what I remember the plot was pretty thin and it felt more like the series was treading water than anything else. Plot-wise, that’s disappointing, but there are other aspects to the series which appeal – not least the mordant wit, which felt sadly lacking in the trailer for Besson’s film, although, to be fair, that focused on the visuals because that’s what modern audiences appear to want. But one of the strengths of the Valerian and Laureline series has been the shift in emphasis from Valerian to Laureline, and it would be a crying shame if the film characterised Valerian as the omni-competent hero and Laureline as his decorative sidekick. Because, to be honest, I had thought we were better than that. Still, this is Besson, so who knows. Mézières is apparently happy with the film, although as the illustrator I’d expect him to be concerned chiefly with the visuals. But I may be doing him a disservice – and Besson too, of course. We shall see. Meanwhile, the comics are readily available and definitely worth reading. Up to volume 17, at least.

Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson (2001, UK). I bought this when it was published 16 years ago, but I seem to have missed reading it and it’s only now I’ve finally got around to it. The novel opens with six prologues, each of which is based around one of the main narrative’s major characters. I’ve never been a big fan of prologues, but I like books that play around with narrative structure… And six introductory prologues strikes me as an interesting structural choice, even if their content doesn’t add all that much to the plot. Which concerns a pair of government projects, one in the UK and one in the US, based around some sort of neurological mapping technology, which could allow governments to control, and program, the thoughts of their citizens. Elements within the US security apparatus want control of the technology – and have already run a hugely illegal, and unsuccessful, test on human beings on a Native American reservation. In the UK, the research is being performed by a company owned by a mysterious Russian scientist (whose chain of identity changes forms one of the six prologues). When a test on a human subject is sabotaged, leading to a Dr Manhattan-like series of events, and infecting main character Natalie Armstrong with a more powerful version of the Mappa Mundi software… it kicks off a transatlantic techno-thriller plot that reminds me a little of a Cronenberg film, and in which the science-fictional technobabble floats uneasily on a well-realised real-world setting. The two main characters, Armstrong and half-Cheyenne FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, also felt a little good to be true. I suspect I’d have been more impressed with Mappa Mundi had I read it in 2001 (it made the Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love, and rightly so), but Robson’s subsequent novels have all been very good indeed and she’s one of the authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published – even if it takes me sixteen years to get around to reading them…

Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (2015, UK). I forget why I read the first of Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novels (her disguise had been rumbled before I read it, so I knew it was by Rowling). Possibly it was because my mother had a copy and asked me if I wanted to read it and I said, go on then. And then she got hold of the second book in the series… And now the third… The prose is a little better than average for the crime genre, but not quite good enough to be called literary. And the crime elements are not especially well put together or convincing, perhaps about as poorly done as you’d expect in a literary novel. So the Cormoran Strike novels fall uneasily between two stools, without being quite good enough to be one or the other. Having said that, they’re easy reads, and the two protagonists – Strike himself, and his business partner, Robin – are engaging characters. In this one, an old enemy of Strike’s sends Robin the leg of a young female murder victim by courier, and clues suggest the perpetrator is an enemy from Strike’s past – two men he investigated when in the RMP, and a stepfather he hated. Rowling drags out the mystery for far too long, sending Strike and Robin up and down the country in search of clues. Meanwhile, Robin’s relationship with her fiancé hits a rocky patch – as the fiancé thinks Robin and Strike are attracted to each other (Rowling has been doing a Mulder/Scully thing with them). Oh, and the reference to Blue Oyster Cult in the title? (I spotted it immediately, I’m a BOC fan.) The entire book is filled with references to the songs and lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult. As a fan of the band, that was a draw, but I can’t see it being the same to those who aren’t. It’s not like the references add anything to the plot that could not have been done by a fictional band (and, let’s face it, Rowling could hardly write worse lyrics than some of Sandy Perlman’s). Of the three Strike novel so far published – and more will undoubtedly appear – Career of Evil was more likeable than its predecessors, but less satisfactory as a crime novel. I suspect that may be the series’ future…

Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK). New science fiction from my favourite sf author? That went straight onto the wishlist the moment it was announced… Two scientists from different fields, and with opposing views on how to conduct their science, join forces to run an experiment in a recently-discovered “void”, a hollow space deep in bedrock, in which they plan to make changes to “information space” and so instantaneously relocate their facility to an exo-planet. In the facility are the IS scientists and a “crew”, a group of reality TV stars who have been involved in several television interstellar mission simulations. The main character, Kir, is a young woman who grew up feral and now has an AI embedded in her skull. The Information Space thing reminds me of Buonarotti Drive from Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, and may in fact be the same thing. Proof of Concept starts out as an exploration of two incompatible groups of people living in a facility sealed off from the outside world, and in which tensions are heightened after a series of deaths – heightened to the point where the experiment is jeopardised. But then the experiment has also been dangerously compromised, and is not quite what it’s been presented to be. Reading Proof of Concept reminded me of all the reasons why Jones is my favourite sf author – that clear clinical prose, the knotty ideas, the sense there’s so much more to the story that’s not being told… Jones sketches in her near-future lightly, but there’s more than enough there to ground the story, even if current taste is for an excess of detail. She also pitches the readers straight into the story, which can leave readers floundering a little. But Jones’s fiction has always required work from the reader – as should all good fiction – and if Proof of Concept feels a little thin in places, it nevertheless has an interesting protagonist in Kir, and a fascinating idea, Information Space, at its core. More, please.

Monsieur d’Eon is Woman, Gary Kates (1995, USA). I have no idea how long I’ve had this book. I sort of found it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it. (Um, according to my database, I bought it cheap on eBay in 2005.) Anyway, I found it in a pile of books while I was doing a little light tidying in the study. I’d heard of the Chevalier d’Eon, of course, and thought I knew the basic details of his story… But apparently not. Kates bases his biography chiefly on d’Eon’s own writings – which, he is careful to point out, often contained fabricated and/or embroidered details (and in some cases, Kates provides historical evidence that d’Eon had lied in his autobiographical writings). The popular story has it that d’Eon was a spy for Louis XV, and he infiltrated the Imperial Russian court purporting to be a woman. After a period in England, he returned to France, adopted a female identity, and lived out the rest of his days as the Chevalière d’Eon. He claimed to have been born female, but brought up male because his father needed a son or they’d lose the family holdings. But on d’Eon’s death, it turned out d’Eon was male. Much of this history was fabricated by d’Eon himself. Kates maintains that d’Eon got himself in such bad favour with Louis XV, and yet was privy to so many embarrassing secrets, that the only way to neutralise d’Eon was to make him a woman – by royal decree. The book explains the historical and political background to d’Eon’s life and adventures, but it’s never quite clear why everyone thought a gender-change was suitable. Or what triggered the rumours he was really female. What is clear, however, is that d’Eon was an astonishing person, widely-read, learned, a gifted diplomat, a prolific author, and a minor war hero. He led a peculiar life – the first half as male, and a spy/diplomat for the French king; the second half in exile as a woman. Some of the details on d’Eon on his Wikipedia page are contradicted in Monsier d’Eon is a Woman – especially the bit about the Russian court. Kates maintains d’Eon invented the cross-dressing element years later (although he was indeed sent to the Russian court by Louis XV). A fascinating book about a fascinating person.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures 2017, #28

Another mixed bag…

Passengers, Morten Tyldum (2016, USA). This didn’t do too well at the box office, and was panned by critics; and was especially panned by many of the people I follow on Twitter/read on blogs. Chiefly because it was characterised as a rape/stalker fantasy. What many of those critics had failed to mention is that Pratt’s character agonises over his decision, but goes ahead and does it despite knowing he’s in the wrong. Although that in no way justifies his action, or makes it right. And Lawrence’s character roundly rejects him when she learns the truth. It’s an unpleasant story, but it’s disingenuous to claim it presents it without commentary. On top of which, the film has plenty of other problems. Briefly, Chris Pratt is a glorified mechanic being shipped in cold sleep to a distant colony world aboard a fancy CGI starship. A meteorite strike causes a glitch and he’s awakened ninety years before the starship reaches its destination. He cannot go back into cold sleep. And he’ll be dead by the time the ship reaches its destination. In the cold sleep chamber, he spots Jennifer Lawrence, fancies her, looks into life – she’s a celebrated writer – and falls in love with her. So he wakes her and pretends it was another glitch. They have a good time aboard the deserted starship, despite knowing they’ll not live to see the destination. Then she discovers he deliberately woke her. She rejects him. Then the reactor or something goes berserk because of the meteroid strike or something, and they have to work together to save the ship. Ship fixed, rift healed. The two of them live happily ever after… True, Passengers shows Pratt doing something unthinkable, and then shows him enjoying the fruits of that act – it is, in effect, a death sentence for Lawrence, triggered wholly by Pratt. But the consequences of that act are not left unexplored, or presented without commentary. In fact, the shit third act’s bullshit jeopardy, thrown into the plot in order to effect a reconciliation, is probably more offensive. Boy wakes girl, thus consigning her to an early death aboard a starship populated only by him, but fusion reactor meltdown makes it all okay… And yeah, he did wrong, he was being punished for it… and the film then fakes a situation to make it all work out okay. That’s the really bad thing about Passengers. I probably should have avoided it, as advised.

A Girl At My Door, July Jung (2014, South Korea). Another film David Tallerman added to my rental list. And another good call. (This is not to say they’ve all been good calls, but we seem to be averaging quite a high hit rate each.) A policewoman has been assigned as station chief at a small seaside town after a scandal back in Seoul. On her first day, she witnesses some schoolkids bullying a a girl their own age. Later, she spots the girl’s father beating the same girl, and she stops it. The policeman gets reluctantly involved when the girl turns up at her house, and she takes her in so she will no longer be beaten by her father. This, of course, causes talk. And is not helped by the policewoman drinking. It all comes to a head when the father – a drunkard, and manager of the town’s main business – accuses the policewoman of abusing his daughter. Which is only made worse when the daughter, in all innocence, gives answers to the police which can be easily misconstrued. But the girl has her revenge – she fakes an incident of rape from her father while her phone is on and afte rshe has called a policeman. A Girl At My Door can’t decide if it’s a drama or a thriller, and flips between both registers… but that works in its favour. It goes for dead-pan throughout, which means the spin put on events later in the film can be seen purely as perspective. Having said that, the teenage girl is a bit creepy – although in a way you can never quite put your finger on. The fact everything starts to go horribly wrong for the policewoman comes as no real surprise, but the way the girl turns the tables is a neat twist. Definitely worth seeing.

The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin (1940, USA). I admit I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, perhaps because it’s possibly Chaplin’s most famous film (it’s also an important plot point in Iron Sky)… but I’d never actually seen it. And then it popped up on Amazon Prime… And, well… It seems it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See  Before You Die list and I can see why: it’s a bit rubbish. It’s more Benny Hill than your actual Charlie Chaplin. The title refers to Hynkel who is, well, Hitler. But there’s also a Jewish tailor (that’s the actual name of the character) who closely resembles him. Both played, of course, by Chaplin. But the tailor loses his memory after being injured in WWI. He returns to the Jewish ghetto and tries to rebuild his life, but Hynkel’s stormtroopers are proesecuting a campaign of antisemitic violence and intimidation against the ghetto’s inhabitants. When the Jewish tailor becomes a target, he ‘s first helped out by Paulette Goddard, and later by an officer high in Hynkel’s regime, whose life the Jewish tailor saved during WWI (an early sequence in the film shows this: it’s a pretty dumb flying comedy routine). Having seen several Chaplin films, and thought them good, I was expecting more of The Great Dictator. It didn’t deliver. There were some clever gags in the films – the ack-ack gun, for example – but they were usually book-ended by weak comedy. It’s probably worth seeing this, so you can cross it off your list. But it’s far from being one of Chaplin’s best.

Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson (2016, Canada). Someone, a known and plainly deluded denier, asked Buzz Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he had been to the Moon… and Aldrin punched him in the face. Since 1969 there have been conspiracy theories claiming Apollo 11, or all of the Apollo missions, were faked. It’s all complete bollocks, of course. (Hint: when a cover-up is more expensive and complicated than the event is it is supposedly covering up, chances are the event actually took place.) But while faked Moon landings have appeared in fiction during the past four and a half decades, the nearest Hollywood came was Capricorn One, which posited a faked landing on Mars. Until now. In the past two years, there have been two films about faked Moon landings – both, incidentally, suggesting Kubrick was involved – but neither of which have been US films. First was Moonwalkers (see here), which was French, and not entirely successful; and now we have Operation Avalanche from Canada. In this one, an ambitious young CIA agent persuades his bosses to allow him to a film a faked Apollo 11 moon landing because all indications are NASA will fail to achieve Kennedy’s target of the “by the end of the decade”. The agent and his team pose as a documentary crew, and the enture film is presented as found footage – ie, the footage they shot. And it makes a better fist of the found footage angle than Apollo 18 (which remains the best fictional representation of Apollo on film). The DVD’s cover art does Operation Avalanche no favours – nor, in fact, does the the title. The synopsis led me to expect something like Moonwalkers, which was not especially good, or funny. But Operation Avalanche is actually pretty good. It maintains an impressively earnest tone throughout, evokes its period especially well, and its cast of unknowns and barely-seens do a good job of convincing the viewer it’s all really quite real. Worth seeing.

Cumbres, Gabriel Nuncio (2013, Mexico). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime – it is proving not entirely useless, and despite being full of shit films, does actually have the odd gem buried in there. And it’s no good searching for it, because the search function is shite. You just… stumble across it. And hope it doesn’t disappear before you get the chance to watch it. I guess it’s little different, in effect, to channel-hopping… and discover ing that one of your 200+ cable channels is not showing an episode of NCIS or Friends by is ten minutes into a hard-to-find film you really want to see… Which is all somewhat irrelevant, as I knew nothing about Cumbres when I came across it – but the synopsis sounded intriguing, and it was a Mexican film and I’ve not seen many Mexican films (er, Jodorowsky… and that’s about it). A father wakes up his teenage daughter and tells her she has to drive her older sister out to relatives in the country because something bad has happened. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Nuncio takes his time revealing what the elder sister has done, although it’s mentioned early that it involves her boyfriend. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white, and is mostly set in the car in which the two drive south. It’s well-played, Nuncio’s coyness over revealing the reason for the sudden flight quickly ceases to be annoying, and it all hangs together exceedingly well. Good film.

Fat City*, John Huston (1972, USA). I’ve yet to figure out why Huston is important, or at least important enough to appear eight times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Eight times. Some of his early stuff is clearly seminal Hollywood film-making – and he was part of a Hollywood dynasty too. But I’m not sure this grim drama about a has-been boxer and an up-and-coming boxer was all that good. Stacey Keach plays a boxer fallen on hard times, forever promising he’ll get fit and return to the sport, but usually ending up back on the booze. Jeff Bridges plays the amateur Keach decides has talent, and who he pushes into a career in the sport. It’s set in a run-down area of Los Angeles, featuring a cast of alcoholics and low-lives, and is based on the only novel published by Leon Gardner. When I started working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, Fat City was unavailable on DVD, but a posh new dual format edition has just been released. Which was lucky for me. I guess. Although why it ever ended  up on the list is a mystery. True, I’m no fan of boxing films – or indeed of the sport (and it’s a bit rich actually calling it a “sport”, if you ask me), so much of its appeal is lost on me. But I am a fan of films, and nothing about Fat City especially stood out for me. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list count: 865


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Moving pictures 2017, #27

Not sure what to make of this batch of films – I thought them all well worth seeing, and a pretty good illustration why varying the films you watch is a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of excellent films because I no longer immediately turn to Hollywood for something to watch of a night. In fact, so far this year, less than a quarter of the movies I’ve watched have been from the US – but I still have a way to go before the percentage of all of the films I’ve watched (since I started recording them back in 2001) that are from the US drops below 50 percent… Admittedly, it’s currently at 52 percent, so not there’s not that far to go… But I’ve seen a lot of films, so it’s taking a while to get those last few points down…

Journey to Agartha, Makoto Shinkai (2011, Japan). This was the second Shinkai film lent to me by David Tallerman – on Blu-ray this time. He thought I might not enjoy it as much as other Shinkai films as it’s clearly fantastical. But… I’m not dead-set against fantasy, I just like it to be used interestingly. And, to be fair, the whole Agartha mythology is something that’s fascinated me for a number of years. True, Journey to Agartha goes off on some wild tangent pretty much totally unconnected with the mythology, but I knew where it was starting from, which is a bonus. A teenage girl, Asuna, spends much of her free time hanging out at a hideout she has discovered on a hill, tuning into strange music with a crystal radio set. Returning home from one such session, she is attacked by a weird-looking creature, like a cross between a bear and a dinosaur. She’s saved by a mysterious young man, who seems to have magical powers. The young man says he is from Agartha, a name Asuna hears a few days later in something read out in class by a substitute teacher. Anyway, Agartha is a mythical realm on the inside of the earth (hollow earth and all that). Asuna finds another mysterious young man at her hideout, also from Agartha. They’re attacked by men in paramilitary uniform, there’s a fight… and Asuna ends up entering Agartha with the substitute teacher, who, it transpires, wants to bring his wife back from the land of the dead (which, to be fair, confuses hollow earth mythology with the underworld, not mention chucking in elements of the Orpheus myth… but it works, so what the hell). It’s certainly true this film is fantastical, in much the same way as Spirited Away is, but I much preferred it to the Studio Ghibli movie. The world of Agartha was presented really well, and while the story may be a little confused in places (a lot happens), the animation is lovely and the production design inventive. Recommended.

Born to be Bad, Lowell Sherman (1934, USA). My mother lent me a boxed set of Cary Grant films, some of which I’d  not seen before. This was one of them. It’s a pre-code film from 1934, in which Loretta Young is actually the star… although a Loretta Young box set is unlikely to ever happen, whereas there are already plenty of Cary Grant box sets… Young plays a single mother, with a son she has left to do pretty much as he pleases. Until he gets hit by a milk truck. Driven by Grant. Who turns out to be the wealthy president of Amalgamated Dairies. Young is persuaded to try and sue Grant by exagerrating the extent of her son’s injuries (he was shaken and bruised), but in court Grant’s lawyers demolish Young’s case. The boy is put in a home. Grant offers to adopt him. The adoption goes ahead, and the kid thrives in his new wealthy home. But Young doesn’t like the arrangement and seduces Grant in order to break up his marriage. It doesn’t work. Realising she’s done him wrong, Young returns to her meagre life. This wasn’t bad (no pun intended), to be honest. Young plays a good part, and her character is a strong female protagonist. It’s not that the film is feminist, but it’s a damn sight closer than most films of that decade… or indeed the following two or three decades. It’s an early Grant film (well, his sixteenth… of seventy-six), so he’s bouncy rather than urbane… which doesn’t quite work here. But Young carries the film – and yes, her kid is an annoying brat. Worth seeing.

Do the Right Thing*, Spike Lee (1989, USA). Lee has a couple of films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he’s clearly an important film-maker in US cinema – although the fact it took until the 1980s for someone like him to appear doesn’t speak too well. He documents the black lived experience in the US – although more so, I thought, in She’s Gotta Have It than in this one. Do the Right Thing is set in a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and centres around a pizzeria owned by an Italian-American family. There are racial tensions between the pizzeria family – one son is outright racist, the father and other son are not, but the father is protective of his heritage to a degree that upsets some 0f his customers. The film focuses on a handful of characters, none of which are especially sympathetic, and then shows the events leading up to a night of violence, during which the pizzeria is trashed and the police kill one of the protestors – and, of course, the police get away with it. Do the Right Thing is a hugely more polished film than She’s Gotta Have It and, obviously, much more political. It boasts a professional cast, and while none are stars, one or two went on to become quite big. It also feels curiously small scale – it’s set in a single neighbourhood, but there never seems to be as many people around as you’d expect. So how the pizzeria manages to stay in business is a bit of a mystery. Do the Right Thing belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although it’s one of the more middling films which actually deserve a place on it.

Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène (1966, Senegal). Diouana is hired as a nursemaid by a French family living in Dakar. She looks after the family’s kids, takes them to school, makes sure they’re fed, etc. When the family return to France, they ask Diouana to go with them, and she accepts. She assumes her duties will be the same, but back home in France, the family are not affluent enough to afford more than one servant – so Diouana has to do everything. She quickly realises she is only there because a black housekeeper is something to show off. She’s over-worked, under-paid, and given little or no freedom. The film is played very simply, with straight shots and a voice-over narration by Diouanna. It’s structured as Diouanna’s life in France intercut with flashbacks which explain how she came to be there, and it’s pretty harrowing stuff. That Diouanna was desperate for a job to support her family is made clear, but the fact the French family totally take advantage of her – and this is why we needed film-makers like Sembène – is documented, and occasionally editorialised by Diouana, with an honesty you won’t find in French films of the time. The ending is shocking, and sadly inevitable. The callousness of the French family is astonishing, as is their patronising racism. It’s a shame there are not more films by Sembène available – or indeed by any director from an African nation. Did you know, for example, that the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is the third largest in the world, second only to Bollywood and Hollywood? How many Nollywood films are routinely given English-language releases on sell-through? The Figurine: Araromire by Kunli Afolayan is considered a major film from Nigeria, but despite being only eight years old it’s never been made available in the UK (or the US, as far as I can discover). Non-Anglophone cinema (I’ve never liked the term “world cinema”) should not just be the province of dedicated cineastes, it should be on equal terms with Anglophone cinema.

Kamikaze Girls, Tetsuya Nakashima (2004, Japan). Once again, I texted David Tallerman and asked him, “WTF am I watching?” He suggested I stick with the film, and, to be fair, it was a good call. Every now and again we meet up and swap the titles of films we think good, and David borrows my phone and adds a bunch of movies I’ve never heard of to my rental lists using the LoveFilm app. I return the favour, of course – earlier tonight, as I write this, he asked me if the Chadian film A Screaming Man was one of my recommendations and admitted it was very good. (Yes, it was one of mine.) Having said that, David’s taste in films is a little… stranger than my own. Kamikaze Girls is something I’d never have watched unless prompted, and I’d have missed out on what is actually a pretty good movie. The title refers to two high school girls, a Lolita and a biker girl, who become unlikely friends. There’s a very cartoony style to the cinematography and it works really well – it’s sort of a toned-down version of Japanese television shows, the ones with the flashing graphics and pop-up kanji/kana. There’s not much to the plot – it’s bit like Cinderella, a bit like West Side Story. It’s also a huge amount of fun, and even the Jamie Hewlett-style animation sequence in the middle works pretty good (it’s also a much better film than Tank Girl). Definitely worth seeing.

Mother Joan of the Angels, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1961, Poland). Polish historical drama is starting to feel a bit like a specific genre, given I’ve now seen a number of them. But I could also say the same for 1970s Polish dramas, which I love – although to be fair the Poles do historical drama really well, I’m just not so keen on it as a genre. The title of this film refers to an abbess who is supposedly possessed by the devil. A priest is sent to investigate, and what he witnesses seems to validate what has been said about the convent. To be honest, I don’t get this demonisation (literally) of female sexuality, or indeed of women in general. I mean, it’s not like the title character was really possessed by a demon. It’s a metaphor, obviously. Although played literally in the film. But women weren’t burnt at the stake, or drowned, or whatever barabaric execution method men of the time thought appropriate, because their bodies had been actually taken over by imaginary creatures. Organised religion is, after all, ninety percent politics (and a great proportion of that must be sexual politics).  Mother Joan of Angels is effectively staged and shot in black and white. It’s like Ken Russell’s The Devils, but without the excess. Or not so much excess, anyway. In other words, the possessed nuns keep their habits on. And the protagonist is an everyman, rather than some sort of melodramatic hero. Now, I think The Devils is an excellent film, and probably Russell’s best – but it’s good because it’s excessive. Mother Joan of the Angels covers similar ground, but with a stark aesthetic that works just as well. There’s also a level of fatalism and black humour to Kawalerowicz’s film that Russell’s lacks; but then the British have always been piss-poor at fatalism and a bit hit-and-miss at black humour (but we are masters of self-deprecating humour, an entirely useless, and not espeically marketable, talent). A Polish film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and that is the joke. A British film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and then add jokes. Um, on reflection, I’m not sure the former is unique to Polish films, as I’ve seen something similar in Romanian films. And others can no doubt name other nations where it applies. But. The Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema volumes 1, 2 and 3 box sets were not cheap purchases, but they were totally worth buying. With these and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (wich includes a wonderful restoration of A River Called Titas!), I now think much more highly Scorsese than I ever did after watching his movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 864


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Moving pictures 2017, #26

Another six films and another six countries. Sadly, one of them is the US, and it wasn’t a film I would have watched otherwise – but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, although I’ve no idea why…

Rushmore*, Wes Anderson (1998, USA). I’ve seen a bunch of Anderson’s films and I’m not a fan. I hate whimsy. But Rushmore was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, so I watched it. And while it wasn’t as gratuitously whimsical as some of his later films, it was just as annoying. The title refers to the posh private school at which the lead character, Max Fischer, is a pupil. And he’s hugely unlikeable and annoying. He’s a poor student, but they can’t get rid of him because he’s far too good at defending himself. Then he meets a bored industrialist, the father of two meathead pupils at Rushmore, and the two become unlikely friends. Fischer persuades the industrialist, played by Bill Murray, in what was apparently a career-revitialising role, to fund an aquarium at Rushmore, an idea he’s conceived in order to win the affections of new teacher, Olivia Williams. Rushmore is entirely about Fischer, and he pissed me off from the moment he first appeared on-screen. I get that this is deliberate, but I don’t see the point of it.Why would I want to watch a film about an annoying little shit? Why would anyone? Why would they even think that was a good idea? Oh well, at least I can cross it off the list.

Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos (2009, Greece). I forget why I put this on my rental list, someone must have recommended it to me but I can’t think who. It was probably David Tallerman; he recommends weird films. A husband and wife have three grown-up children they’ve kept completely isolated from the outside world, even giving them fake meanings to words they stumble across, like “zombie”. The father pays for a security guard at his plant to come and have sex with his son, but the security guard is more interested in cunnilingus with the two daughters. It’s hard to describe quite how odd this film is. It works really well – the three children are cruel and naive, the parents’ motives for the deception are by turns both understandable and completely insane. Lanthimos filmed Dogtooth very simply, with static scenes and realistic dialogue, and it works really well. It’s not a film that bears rewatching – it’s just too damn unsettling – but it’s certainly a film worth seeing. There’s something very Haneke-ish about the story, and I’m a huge Haneke fan. Recommended.

Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski (1962, Poland). I hadn’t known Polanski – or Polański, as he’s given here – was in these box sets, although I suspect I’d have bought them anyway despite his presence. Because, let’s be fair, his is a career that should not be supported – he’s still wanted in the US for a sex crime, after all. Knife in the Water is actually his first feature film, and was the first Polish film nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Sadly, it’s a technically impressive film, but narratively feels like it owes far too many debts to far too many other films. Much of the action takes place aboard a sail boat on a lake, and the fact Polanski managed to film his cast of three out on the water is impressive. The story is less impressive. A well-off couple on their way to their boat for a weekend on the water, nearly run over a hitchhiker. They offer him a lift, and later invite him onboard their boat. It’s a chance for the husband to show off in front of his wife, because the young hitchhiker knows nothing about sailing. Later, the hitch-hiker jumps overboard and hides behind a buoy, faking his drowning. The husband swims to shore to fetch help. The hitchhiker then climbs aboard the yacht, witnesses the wife naked, seduces her… and when the boat returns to the dock and the waiting husband, the hitchhiker is long gone. On the drive home, the wife admits she had sex with the hitchhiker. The story is fairly humdrum, but the way the film is made is technically clever.

5 Centimetres per Second, Makoto Shinkai (2007, Japan). I borrowed this from David Tallerman after watching Shinkai’s The Garden of Words and wanting to see more by him. The title refers to, as the film helpfully explains early on, the speed at which cherry blossom falls to the ground. I’m not sure that’s true, but never mind. The film consists of three linked stories. In the first, a boy and a girl at school become friends, but their families move away from each other. In the second, a classmate becomes enamoured of the boy from the first part, but his heart still belongs to the girl of the first part. In the final section, the two characters lead unconnected lives, but still dream of each other. And then they seem to meet one another but do not connect. Like every Shinkai film I’ve seen, the animation is gorgeous, either photo-realistic or wonderfully painterly. There’s some particularly lovely animation when the two main characters witness a rocket launch, but it’s hard to pick a favourite moment as it all looks so fantastic. And yes, the story is low-key and not a fat lot happens in it – there are no mecha, no kaiju, no science fiction or fantasy elements… but that’s one of the reasons why I like Shinkai’s films so much. I’m tempted to get my own copies, in fact.

No, Pablo Larraín (2012, Chile). This is the third film in Larraín’s trilogy about Pinochet, and I’m guessing the two earlier films are Tony Manero and Post Mortem, as Wikipedia doesn’t make it clear that the films are linked. I guess I’ll have to watch them now as I thought this very good. Gael García Bernal plays an advertising man who is hired by the “No” side in the 1988 referendum in Chile over whether Pinochet should remain in power. Happily, the Chileans voted for an open election and not for more military dictatorship (see, Britain, it is possible to vote intelligently in a referendum). According to Wikipedia, “the “No” campaign, created by the majority of Chile’s artistic community, proved effective with a series of entertaining and insightful presentations that had an irresistible cross-demographic appeal. By contrast, the “Yes” campaign’s advertising, with only dry positive economic data in its favor” – which sounds uncomfortably familiar, although the No campaign didn’t resort to outright lies as both the Leave.eu and Vote Leave campaigns did here (but then racism always has “cross-demographic appeal”). No presents the campaign, and the government’s response to it, as dry drama – quite talky drama, in fact. Bernal is good in the lead role, unsurprisingly; but it did feel a little like the focus on the adverts used by either side in the referenderum undercut the importance of the vote and the horror of Pinochet’s regime. But perhaps the latter point is covered better in Tony Manero and Post Mortem. Happily, there is a box set of all three films – No to Pinochet: The Pablo Larraín Collection – and I’ve already stuck it on my wishlist.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Kabir Khan (2015, India). I’m not sure which has surprised the Indian guys I work with the most – the fact I don’t like cricket, or that I watch Bollywood movies. Anyway, I’d put Bajrangi Bhaijaan on my rental list after seeing it on some list of good Bollywood movies, and they all approved it. And while I’ve enjoyed a number of Bollywood films I’ve seen, I thought this one was really quite good. A six-year-old girl born in Pakistani Kashmir is mute. Her mother takes her to Delhi to a shrine where all promises are realised, but on the train journey home the girl gets off the train and is left behind in India. She comes ascross Salman Khan, a simple but pathologically honest young man, who vows to reunite her with her family, even if it jeopardises his relationship with his fiancée. So he finds a way to sneak into Pakistan, via smuggler’s tunnel – but even then, he asks for permission from the Pakistani border patrol to enter the country… and when they refuse, he tries again until they accept. There’s an amusing scene where all three are performing ablutions in a river, and they ask the young girl if she had done a number one or two and she replies two… Khan is good as the well-intentioned but somewhat dim-witted title character, and while you know the film is going to end happily, it takes its time getting there. It’s worth the trip, though. The production values are astonishingly high, and there’s some excellent landscape photography. Although it didn’t follow the usual boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl plot of your typical Bollywood film, this is probably one of the best ones I’ve seen. Oh, and this is the first film I’ve ever seen which lists the production company’s tax counsel among the opening credits.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 864


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Reading diary, #48

I’m still struggling with my reading, and slipping further behind on my Goodreads challenge. It’s not the books I’ve been choosing to read, because most of them I’ve enjoyed and thought good, and none were hard work to get through. I love books, I love reading, and I want to read as many books as I possibly can. So I’m going to have to get back into it somehow… The books are a bit male-heavy this time around. I usually alternate genders in my fiction reading, but I seem to have had a short run on books by male authors. Ah well, it’ll balance out in the end.

The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK). Keiller is a film-maker, best-known for London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins, which are excellent lightly fictionalised cinematic meditations on the state of the UK, both economically and politically. He’s a bit like Adam Curtis, but without the found footage and global conspiracies. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet was published to accompany an exhibition of Keiller’s work – which I never saw as I only discovered his work after it had been on – and describes how Keiller went about making Robinson in Ruins, his thought processes as he wrote the script and what inspired him. It’s fascinating stuff. And you should definitely watch the films too.

Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book of the trilogy, but there’s apparently a fourth book in the works. Which is no bad thing, as it’s been an excellent series so far – and I’m not the only person to think so, as Europe in Winter won the BSFA Award only last month (although, bafflingly, it didn’t make the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; should I blog what I think of this year’s Clarke shortlist, or are we not allowed to have dissenting opinions any more?). It’s more of the same like Europe in Autumn, rather than Europe at Midnight, and in part follows on from the plot of the first more than that second. There’s a terrorist attack on the Line, and Rudi discovers his own father was heavily involved with a bunch of rogue topographers from the 1920s who might or might not have been responsible for an entirely separate pocket universe that might or might not be part of the Community. The person who promised so much in the the second book is assassinated from a distance in this one, abruptly cutting off that particular avenue of exploration by the narrative… Where these books are especially good – and it’s not the melding of sf and spy thriller, which has been done before, although no examples spring immediately to mind – but these books’ true strength is in depicting Europe as a coherent federation of cultures. They’re not entirely harmonious cutures, which is hardly unexpected, but the Europe books exhibit a magnificent sense of place. They could not have been written by a US author, that much is obvious; it’s slightly surprising they were written by a Brit… because the best European fiction has always been written by continental Europeans, not Brits. It’s an impressive achievement, which means cavilling over elements of the plots seems, well, cheap. But there are holes – the opening bombing is never satisfactorily explained, there’s always a sense the author is following a different agenda to his characters (and his readers must follow the characters’, of course), and there are one or two set-pieces which hint at a level of technology that’s never quite capitalised upon. But these are are minor quibbles. These are great books, superior near-future sf, and I’d put them in the top five of recent near-fututre sf with, er, Ken McLeod’s Intrusion – and that’s about it. Go read all three books.

Pirate Utopia, Bruce Sterling (2016, USA). Which a lot of people probably don’t know about as it seems someone fucked up the Nielsen data entry so badly that Amazon lists the book as by John Coulthart, Rick Klaw and Warren Ellis, and doesn’t mention Bruce Sterling anywhere. But now you know about it, and being a fan of Sterling’s work… Apparently, after World War I, the city of Fiume, now Rijeka, was claimed by both Italy and the recently-formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. But a group of anarchists, led by the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, seized power and declared the independent Regency of Carnaro. The city became something of a social experiment, but the fascists seized control after a couple of years and Fiume was annexed by Italy. Sterling’s short novel makes much of the birth of Futurism – indeed, the major character dreams of building “air torpedoes” and such, the sort of technology displayed in Lang’s Metropolis. But Pirate Utopia is also about the birth of fascism in Italy, and how it gained traction among the establishment. Of course, we’re seeing that happen on a daily basis here in the UK and the US. Pirate Utopia is a fascinating piece of history, but… as a piece of writing it felt a little lacking. Sterling was never much of a stylist, but I remember novels such as Distraction and Holy Fire being well-written novels. Pirate Utopia, on the other hand, seems to be written entirely in simple declarative sentences, which makes all feel a bit dumbed-down. I get that there’s a lot going on in the book, but it does feel a little Like Sterling didn’t trust his readers and so kept it simple. I suspect this is one for fans.

Bleed Like Me, Cath Staincliffe (2013, UK). I was a big fan of the Scott & Bailey TV series – and certainly for at least the first two series (or “seasons”, for US readers) it was superior telly. It slipped a bit in the third, and while it’s still very good it has seemed to lose its way a bit. And, to be honest, the 2016 series consisted only of three episodes, none of which were hugely memorable. The books are, sadly, much the same. I like that they’re built around the series, and include details revealed in the programme, but they’re otherwise straightforward police procedurals, heavy on the procedural and personal life of the two title characters (one of the series’ strengths, it must be said). In this book, a pub owner kills his wife, daughter and brother-in-law and then flees with his young son. The rest of the book is a manhunt – this is not a murder-mystery. They know who committed the crime, they just have to find him before he kills the young child he has with him. Meanwhile, Bailey is still trying to get over her relationaship with, and attempted murder by, her ex-boyfriend. Scott is having problems at home, which is not helped by her fling with a colleague, and syndicate leader Murray is worried about her son who has moved in with his estranged father and no longer seems interested in going to university. To be honest, I was expecting more in the way of plot. The manhunt is really dragged out, and reading this several years, and several series, after it was written, and so all the subplots have been resolved, kind of spoiled it a bit. But they’re easy reads, I like the characters, and if I stunble across the next one in a charity shop I’ll probably buy it and read it.

Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader, Robin Scott Wilson, ed. (1973, USA). I found this at Eastercon, and while it was quite tatty, and most of the contents wouldn’t normally appeal to me, but the fact it was a mix of short stories followed by essays by the authors on writing those stories, and some of the names involved included Delany, Le Guin and Russ, so I thought it worth a bash. It also included a story by the editor. I don’t get that. If you edit an anthology, you do not include one of our own stories. It’s hugely unethical. I don’t even care if you’re a co-editor. You edit, you do not contribute. It  makes you look bad, it makes everyone involved in the anthology look bad. And Scott Wilson’s story in this particular anthology, which is otherwise quite good, is easily the worst. As it is, the stories are variable – the Russ, ‘The Man Who Could Not See Devils’, is not one of her better ones, but the following essay is quite interesting. The Delany is ‘We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line’, which has always felt to me, in part, like a prototype for Dhalgren, and is one of those Delany stories I like more the more often I read it. His essay on the piece is especially good, and his approach to writing echoes my own in many ways. Le Guin contributes ‘Nine Lives’, the story about a ten-clone, and it’s okay. Damon Knight annotates his own story, ‘Masks’, although annotations overstate the literary quality of the story. And Kate Wilhelm’s dissection of her story ‘The Planners’ gives some useful tips on point of view. As a sf anthology, Those Who Can is middling at best, but the essays on writing greatly improve it. It’s a pity my copy is so tatty.

The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). I read Ouředník’s Europeana back in 2006, after something in the blurb persuaded me I might enjoy it. I loved it. I even picked it as one of my top five books of the year. I was less enamoured of his Case Closed, although it was good enough for me to continue to read him. The Opportune Moment, 1855, despite its unwieldy title, is not as good as Europeana, but it’s still huge fun. The novel opens with a letter from an Italian in 1902 to his beloved, before moving back half a century to the titular year and the journal of an Italian anarchist who travels to Brazil with a group of like-minded souls – well, not entirely like-minded, as they bicker and argue throughout the trip – to join a utopian community called Fraternitas. The book then jumps to six months after their arrival, and gives four slightly different entries on the first few months in the community. In each of them, the community fails because of the failings of its members; and while it makes for good satire to poke fun at idealism, not everyone is venal and corrupt despite all their protestations of high ideals. Ouředník is definitely worth reading, and The Opportune Moment, 1855, is very good, but it does feel a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and even though the book is very funny in parts, and very good on human nature, I prefer my utopian fiction with a happy ending. Oh, and I’d really like to see more of Ouředník’s fiction translated into English.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures 2017, #25

My first Vietnamese film is in this post. I was sure I’d seen a movie from that country, but if I have I’d never recorded it. So The Lady Assassin earns the dubious distinction of being my first film from Vietnam. Otherwise, six films equals six countries.

The Last Day of Summer, Tadeusz Konwicki (1958, Poland). Despite having seen a number of Polish films, and being a fan of several Polish directors – although not so much Kieślowski these days, who I recently decided is somewhat middle-brow – I don’t know all that much about the cinema of the country. Konwicki’s name, for example, is completely new to me. And the place he occupies, and the place this film occupies, in Polish cinema is also unknown to me. So I’ve no real idea why it’s in the second box set of Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which is not something I could have said of several of the films in the set. Anyway, A MiG fighter dives on a beach, a man and a woman meet on a beach, and, er, that’s pretty much it. I didn’t really get this film, to be honest. It felt experimental, in the way many Polish films of the 1950s and 1960s were experimental (and in a way the resolutely commercial cinemas of the US, UK and France, for example, of the time – other than in their independent or avant garde cinema traditions – were not). The Last Day of Summer bears rewatching, perhaps even demands it, so the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema sets have proven smart purchases in that respect – and these days, my main criterion when purchasing films on DVD or Blu-ray is whether I will want to, or need to, watch it a number of times. The Last Day of Summer is perhaps in the bottom half of the eight films in this box set, but it’s a strong box set so that’s no bad thing.

Cosmos, Andrzej, Żuławski (2015, France). This was Żuławski’s last film – he died in February 2016 – and while it’s clearly a film only he could have made, it doesn’t seem quite as intensely bonkers as some of his others. It’s still OTT, at least in comparison to other films of its type, but that’s hardly unexpected. It just seems tame as a Żuławski film… Which does not mean it’s not worth watching. To be fair, Żuławski was a singular talent who made singular films, most of which are probably not to everyone’s taste. I find him a bit hit and miss, but I appreciate his misses as much as I adore his hits. I think, for example, that Na srebrnym globie is actually improved by the random footage of shopping centres, added to cover the gaps Żuławski never managed to film a decade before. And L’amour bracque is the most 1980s film ever made, which makes your eyes water, but that has to earn respect. Cosmos doesn’t feel like a film to end a career on, n0t that it was ever intended to be, but sadly that’s what we must take it as. Żuławski was always technically excellent, and it shows here – more so, in fact, because the technology allows him to better realise his vision. The story has the vague shape of a French cinema standard, but Żuławski makes of it something that is uniquely his own, and does it in a way that is both technically superior to his other films but not quite as emblematic of his career as those earlier films were. Worth seeing, although Żuławski fans will get more mileage from it. I’m a fan.

The Lady Assassin, Quang Dung Nguyen (2013, Vietnam). I’m not sure why I bunged this on the rental list – perhaps after watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, its title persuaded me it might be similar. It isn’t. But neither was it as bad as it could have been. Which feels a bit like damning it with faint praise, or at least a faint insult… when it actual fact it proved quite entertaining. The film opens with a funeral party in mediaeval Vietnam coming across a remote inn staffed by four young women. The women initially refuse them hospitality, but eventually agree to let them stay. Midway through their meal, the women attack and prove to be accomplished assassins (who do tricks with a ball on a long ribbon, which they kick). It turns out the inn is a trap, and the women kill all those who stay there. But this time, they discover a woman hiding in the funeral party. She is fleeing a plot against her family, of which sh’es the only survivor. She is offered the opportunity to stay on at the inn, train as an assassin and thus have revenge on her family’s killers. She accepts the offer. And, er, that’s about it. There’s a strange sort of volleyball game, where they have to kick the ball not punch it. There are lessons on cleaning the inn by rolling up and down ropes. It’s all hugely implausible but still entertaining. The pulpy cover art doesn’t do the film any favours, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.

Track 29, Nicolas Roeg (1988, UK). Having watched the three Roeg films ninety-nine percent of film-watchers can name – ie, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout – I decided to explore his oeuvre a little more. (Yes, okay, some people might also know of Roeg’s debut, Performance, but I’ve not actually watched that yet.) Anyway, the first Roeg rental off the list was this one, Track 29, and… it’s an odd piece. It’s like a cross between David Lynch and Ken Russell. Which is just as unpalatable as it sounds. Gary Oldman plays a young Brit looking for his birth mother, Theresa Russell, an American, who turns out to be married to Christopher Lloyd, a doctor who spends more time with his train set than his wife. Except perhaps Gary Oldman is not real, and Russell’s relationship with him is just a fantasy of hers… Whatever ambivalence Roeg might have initially tried for he quickly drops in favour of Russell-seque (Ken, that is) excess. So we see Lloyd’s train set, and home, destroyed in a number of impressive ways, but none of them are real. It’s all a bit hyper-dramatic. I remember the performances in Walkabout being quite laid back, but everyone in Track 29 gurns like a Carry On star. Oldman’s OTT performance in this is matched only by his performance in Besson’s The Fifth Element. After seeing Roeg’s three best-known films, I ‘d expected more of him. I’ll try some more of his films, but I’ve no idea what happened here, that the man who directed The Man Who Fell to Earth could produce a piece of sub-Russell-esque nonsense. Um, I see his film just prior to this was Castaway, which I seem to remember didn’t do very well…

Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg (2016, USA). My fascination with deep sea exploration, such as using saturation diving (which is, to be fair, almost entirely commercial these days), has extended a little to the design of offshore structures. I find oil rigs and their like interesting – although I didn’t especially enjoy my one visit to an offshore supercomplex back in 2001, as I’m not fond of heights… Anyway, Deepwater Horizon is a dramatisation of the events of April 2010, when the titular rig exploded and caused a massive oil spill that posioned much of the Gulf  of Mexico and cost BP billions of dollars in fines. The film pretty much recounts the events leading up to the explosion, and ignores all the political shenanigans which followed. The thing to remember about BP is that it was originally called Anglo-Iranian Oil and is reponsible for two regime changes in that country. So this is a company with a history of putting profit before people. As it is, Deepwater Horizon the film is populated by gruff everyman oil riggers who try to do their jobs to the best of their abilities in a solwly-worsening situation that management seems to content to ignore. This is neither unique to the oil industry, nor uncommon. But for the oil industry, the consequences of failure are much higher. And much more expensive. Not that the film makes much of this aspect. It’s a workmanlike piece – it stars Mark Wahlberg, so of course it is – and the special effects are done well (Berg is usually good with sfx), but making a hero out of John Q Public during a preventable disaster is a good way of deflecting criticism from those who could have prevented it. Deepwater Horizon makes a show of finger-pointing, but it’s feeble at best. I enjoyed the film because I’m interested in oil rigs, but that’s about all it has going for it. After all, this is a director whose most interesting film to date has been Battleship, a piece of sf nonsense based on a boardgame, but which managed to do more interesting things genre-wise than Michael Bay’s entire output…

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, Kunihiko Ikuhara (1999, Japan). I’d asked David Tallerman if I could borrow a couple of his anime DVDs, particularly the Makoto Shinkai ones, and for reasons best known to himself he threw in Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (or Adolescence of Utena, as Wikipedia has it). After I’d finished the film, I texted him: “WTF have I just watched?” There’s a line in Wikipedia’s plot summary for the movie which perfectly sums it up: “Utena is then inexplicably swallowed by a sporadic car wash, and, inside, she is metamorphosed into a pink car”. Um, yes. It started well enough, although I wasn’t too keen on the stylised art – pointy noses, big eyes, long writhing hair in a variety of implausible colours, tiny torsos and long skinny legs – but hey, that’s like such a popular style it’s become part of the iconography. And the story too throws you straight in at the deep-end, with princes and fencing and a Rose Bride, and just enough not-exactly-subtle exposition to further confuse… But just when the pieces start slotting together, it goes completely batshit insane. Not just the aforementioned “sporadic [sic] car wash” and the ensuing Death Race, but the castle on wheels which tries to crush the pink car, and all of it enfolded in the sort of metaphysical/philosophical framework that you dare not think about too hard in case it comes crashing down about your ears. And yet… the film lingers. It’s not only dramatic, or even melodramatic, it’s two-dimensional animated characters actually chewing the scenery like the shark in Jaws, Jaws 2 and even Jaws 3D. Just when the story starts to add up… it veers away into babble. It makes for an interesting, and memorable, viewing experience. I don’t think I’ll ever become a fan of this sort of anime – sorry, David; I prefer my anime more like Only Yesterday – but I’m still glad I got to see Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 863