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Reading diary, #51

With a TBR in the low four figures, it’s reached the stage where I’ve owned books for decades without having got around to reading them. This is, quite obviously, pretty dumb. So for several years now I’ve been trying to plan my reading, making a list of the books I intend to tackle in the coming month… But then, of course, the new shiny drops through the letterbox, and sometimes its lure is a little too strong and so it supplants one, or more, of the books on the TBR… Which is certainly what happened twice in the half a dozen books below.

Her Pilgrim Soul, Alan Brennert (1990, USA). I picked this up at Kontur in Uppsala last month, and ended up reading it on the train from Manchester Airport after stupidly leaving the book I had been reading on the plane. To be honest, I’d not been enjoying that book – it was The Music of the Spheres, and the writing was pretty bad – so it was no great loss. I was annoyed, however, about losing the 100 Yugoslavian dinar note I’d been using as a bookmark. (Um, I see there’s one for sale on eBay, from a seller located not all that far from Manchester Airport – they’re asking £1.40, although the market price appears to be 99p…) To be honest, I thought I might have read Her Pilgrim Soul before, but on reflection I think I’ve read some of its contents before – likely in one or another of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best SF anthologies, which I used to buy for many years. It’s a collection of well-crafted stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy, most on the light side of either genre (but not the lighter side), and most not especially memorable. It’s been more than a month since Kontur, and I can remember very little about the contents of Her Pilgrim Soul. A good collection, I suppose, but in a way that has no lasting impact and leaves only a vague impression. Fiction, of course, should do more than that; but most manages much less.

The First Circle*, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1968, Russia). I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (see here), and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year (see here) – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks, Paul Kincaid (2017, UK). A housemate lent me a copy of The Wasp Factory back in 1987, and while it was certainly a memorable book, it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t until I joined the British Science Fiction Association a year or two later that I discovered Banks also wrote science fiction – and I can remember finding a hardback copy of Consider Phlebas in WH Smith soon after, but at the time I would never have considered buying a book in hardback. Later, Banks was GoH at Prefab Trout, the second convention I ever attended, in September 1989, and I can remember a review of Canal Dreams in the programme booklet which described the novel as “a taunt thriller”. I think by that point I’d read Banks’s earlier novels – probably borrowed from Coventry City Library – the mainstream ones at least, but possibly also Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. I’m pretty damn sure, however, that the first Culture novel I actually bought was Use of Weapons, which was launched at Eastcon, the 1990 Eastercon, in Liverpool. I bought the hardback and Banks signed it for me. I stil have it, of course. From that point on, I purchased all of his books in hardback as soon as they were published. (However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I managed to track down first edition copies of the books before Use of Weapons.) So I guess you could say I am/was something of a fan. And yet, all those decades of reading him, but so few of his books seemed to manage the quality I expected of them – I enjoyed them, I appreciated them… but it always felt to me like he could do much better. I knew I was being unfair, but I could never help myself. And yet…. after reading Paul’s book on Banks’s novels, it occurs to me that my problem with Banks is that he rewarded careful reading but his prose was so effortlessly readable that I likely never gave his fiction the depth of reading which generated the most reward. And I reached this conclusion because Paul, a friend of many years, writes about Banks’s novels so well, so readably, that I want to go back to Banks’s books immediately and reread them and discover in them all the depth and goodness identified by Paul which I plainly missed… and knowing full well that I will also hugely enjoy the novels because they were always were, above all, hugely enjoyable. So, Paul, job done. (Although I’ll need more convincing about Transition, I think…)

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967, USA). Okay, I admit I bought this novel – at this year’s Eastercon – because of the dreadful cover art. Comparisons with, and references to, The Martian proved inevitable, although the book itself is set on some random alien desert world. Humanity has spread out among the stars and pretty much conquered everyone it meets, most of whom also happen to be human, but nice and fluffy and progressive compared to Earth’s bigoted, racist and sexist conquerors. On one such world, the protagonist of The Killing Thing, Tracey, visits an open-cast mine and sees an experimental mining robot. It kills its inventor, and is taken by Earth’s military establishment for study. On Venus. Where it escapes. And now Tracey is the sole survivor of a ship that tracked the killer robot to the random alien desert world, and he’s stuck on its surface in a lifeboat with limited fuel and supplies, and must hold out until rescue arrives, while the robot hunts him down and tries to kill him. If it weren’t for the background material – most of which is, quite frankly, offensive – The Killing Thing would be padded out beyond boredom. As it is, it still reads like a short story bloated beyond its natural length. I’d had a quite high opinion of Wilhelm’s fiction based on previous stuff by her I’d read, but that opinion took a bit of a beating reading The Killing Thing. When I restart SF Mistressworks – soon, I hope – then I’ll bung a more comprehensive review of this book up there. For now: not a good work from a usually good writer.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (2016, Israel). Once upon a time fix-up novels were pretty common in science fiction. Authors would take a bunch of stories, lash them together with a crude framing narrative, and then the whole thing would be presented as a novel. Some were more successful than others… but the fix-up is still an ugly, lumpy and lop-sided beast of a narrative form. Central Station, although presented as a fix-up novel, and on plenty of novel award shortlists, strikes me more as a collection of linked stories, although there is a story arc which progresses throughout it. I remember one or two of the stories appearing in Interzone and, at the time, I wasn’t especially taken with them. But given the success of this “novel”, and because several people have told me the stories work better together than they did in isolation, I decided to give it a go. And… it still doesn’t really read like a novel. But the individual stories do benefit from being in a collection. Alone, they felt incomplete, unresolved, whereas the novel shows that the resolution is merely cumulative and deferred. The title refers to space port in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and the stories are focused on a handful of families who live in the environs. There’s no date – it’s the future of a century or two hence – which occasionally leads to weird inconsistences in the setting, a feeling that tropes are deployed when needed rather than being integral, or natural, to the background. The prose, happily, is uniformly good, which means the stories are a pleasure to read. But if each individual story feels slightly unresolved, the novel, as a novel qua novel, manages not to feel that way. I don’t think Central Station is as adventurous, or as challenging, as some commentators have claimed, and it probably says more about the way we now view awards, than it does the book itself, that it’s appeared on so many shortlists – I mean, Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, those were genuinely challenging sf novels. But, on the other hand, Central Station is a well-crafted piece of science fiction, with visible writing chops in evidence, and such books seem all too rare in the genre these days…

The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer (1940, UK). I’ve no record of when and where I bought this paperback, but I remember buying half a dozen or so secondhand Heyer paperbacks when I was in Great Malvern for a Novacon. That was back in 1997… So, um, two decades ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Spanish Bride, or if that was indeed when I bought the book, given that I’ve read all the other Heyer books I own – all thirty of them –  and some I’ve even read multiple times. I suspect it is because it’s a war novel, rather than a frothy Regency romance or eighteenth-century adventure. If the cover doesn’t make it plain, the first chapter certainly does, as it describes the Siege of Badajoz in quite gruesome detail. In fact, as a novel of the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride does a pretty good job. Its hero, Brigade-Major Harry Smith of the Light Division, is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon – if not in his intent or actions, certainly in his ability to avoid harm – and its eponymous heroine is also far too chirpy and accepting and… well, only fourteen when she marries to Smith… and it’s hard to read the book without that fact floating about in the back of your mind. Heyer makes an excellent fist of describing the Spanish landscape, and while the blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles seem both accurately- and carefully-phrased, I often had trouble picturing the progress of the fighting. I wanted to see maps, or wargaming tableaux, or something that indicated how the oft-professed tactical genius of the various English officers actually manifested. I know Heyer for her Regency romance novels and, skeevy sexual politics of the time (or of her depiction of the time) aside, I had expected that element of The Spanish Bride‘s plot to be uppermost. But it isn’t. It is, as I wrote earlier, a war novel. If anything, “English officer marries underage Spanish hidalgo heiress” is merely subplot. And yet, having said that, Heyer’s prose has a clarity and wit few these days can match, and it’s readily evident here. The Spanish Bride is not a fun book, but then I don’t think it was intended to be. It’s almost cefrtainly going to be the Heyer novel I reread the least number of times – assuming I ever do reread it, which is unlikely – but I’m nonetheless glad I did read it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Moving pictures 2017, #39

It pleases me when the six films I write about in these Moving picture posts are from six different countries. I mean, I make an effort to watch movies from nations other than the US and UK, but I don’t plan my viewing so meticulously that I hit six countries every six films. And it’s an odd bunch of films too. Half by directors I’ve seen films by before, and half that I knew nothing about when I slid the disc into the player…

Moonfleet, Fritz Lang (1955, USA). I’m pretty sure I read J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet when I was a kid, so sure, in fact, I always get it confused with every book written by Wilkie Collins, even though the only Collins book which comes close, and that’s only in the title, is The Moonstone, which has nothing to do with Cornwall or smugglers and isn’t even set in the 1700s. Um, I see Wikipedia says of Moonfleet, “The book was extremely popular among children worldwide up until the 1970s”, which probably explains why I read it (I was a child in the 1970s). But this was Lang’s adaptation of the novel, a film that star Stewart Granger described as “a bloody awful film”, and it certainly isn’t a children’s film but more of a Hollywood swashbuckler. Sad to say, it’s easy to see why this film and Clash by Night (see here) aren’t actually readily available on DVD, despite being made by a director of Lang’s stature. A young boy is sent to Cornwall by his late mother into the care of an old flame. Unfortunately, said old flame, the local squire, is the head of the local smuggling ring. And the local magistrate is out to get him. The rest, despite the English source text, despite the German director, despite the mostly British cast (although it was shot on the MGM backlot)… is pure Hollywood historical. It has its moments, but Moonfleet is a Sunday afternooon film, and quickly forgotten.

Mughal-e-Azam, K Asif (1960, India). The cover art claims this film is in colour, but it was the only decent cover art for the film I could find. In actual fact, when released in 1960, Mughal-e-Azam was black and white. But in 2009, an extensive, and expensive, digital colourisation of the entire film was done. However, the edition I saw – a rental – was black and white, but for a ten-minute colour section in the middle, and another ten-minute colour section at the end. And, to be honest, given the sets and costumes and the abundant use of jewels and bright colours, I suspect 197 minutes of colourised Mughal-e-Azam would have burnt out my eyes. The film is considered a classic of Bollywood cinema, and it’s easy to see why. It’s set in the late sixteenth century. Emperor Akbar is desperate for a male heir, and walks barefoot to a shrine to pray for a son. Which he soon has. The son grows up to be spoilt and cruel, so Akbar sends him away to become a man. Fourteen years later, Prince Salim returns as a victorious soldier. Meanwhile, Akbar has got himself a new slave girl dancer, Nadira. Salim falls in love with her, and asks his father for her hand in marriage, but Akbar refuses. So Salim rebels, raises an army, there’s a big battle and Salim loses. He is sentenced to death, but if Nadira gives herself up, he’ll be spared. So she does and is entombed alive. But way back at the start of the film Nadira’s mother was granted a boon by Akbar, and she uses it now to save her daughter’s life – but the two must leave the country and spend the rest of their days in exile. This is a proper epic movie – the plot, the characters, the sets, the costumes, the cast of thousands (or at least what seems like one)… As a black and white film, it’s pretty good, but on reflection, despite my earlier comment, I think I probably would like to watch the colourised version. Mughal-e-Azam is a different type of film to Pakeezah, same basic Bollywood plot, of course, but more historical drama than romantic drama, and, despite also being filmed chiefly on massive sets, it doesn’t have that same slightly theatrical look of the other film (which was, to be fair, one of the chief attractions of Pakeezah). I’ve watched around two dozen Bollywood films by now, I think, and while I’ve enjoyed most of them, it’s the historical ones I’ve been tempted to buy my own copies – the Guru Dutt movies, for example, Pakeezah, and now perhaps Mughal-e-Azam

Tasuma, Daniel Sanou Kollo (2004, Burkina Faso). Sogo Sanou is an ex-soldier who fought in Algeria and Indochina for the French, and every month bicycles from his village into the nearest town to collect his military pension. Except it never arrives. Most Burkinabé ex-soldiers, it transpires, left the French army unaware they were eligible for a pension, so someone formed a Burkinabé organisation to apply for those pensions. But Sogo’s application has been delayed because bureaucracy. But he’s convinced that every time he bikes into town, it’ll be waiting for him. So much so, that on one trip he buys a much-needed motorised milling machine for his village from a local trader on credit. But his pension doesn’t arrive, the trader complains to the authorities and tries to re-possess the milling machine. Sogo is so pissed off with all this, he takes the local prefect hostage in his office, and demands he write a letter to General de Gaulle. “But he’s dead!” protests the prefect. “I know that,” says Sogo, “now start writing.” He’s easily taken by the police and thrown into jail. The women of the village then descend on the jail and, thanks to them, and the help of a friendly army lieutenant, Sogo is released. All of which leads to Sogo’s pension being expedited, relations with the trader mended, and there’s a celebration with music and dance at the village for all concerned. I’ve seen the film criticised in a review online as bucolic and a little too slavishly tied to a supposed “African formula”, which seems grossly unfair, if not a bit racist. Tasuma is certainly a product of its setting, and of the concerns which occupy the people in the village and town depicted. But that doesn’t make it formulaic. Anyway, Tasuma is a good film, perhaps not brilliantly directed or acted, but a lot of fun, makes a serious point, and has bags of charm. Worth seeing.

The Dance of Reality, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2013, Chile). Jodorowsky’s last film was 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, which was embarrassingly bad. He then spent two decades trying to interest investors in a sequel to El Topo, and various other projects, but failed. But in 2009, he turned to crowdfunding to finance a film based on his own childhood in northern Chile. That film is The Dance of Reality and… it’s actually pretty damn good. It’s also pretty much a recapitulation of all the ideas and symbolism Jodorowsky has used throughout his career. Jodorowsky’s grandson plays himself – Jodorowsky, that is – at age eleven, the son of a staunch communist and admirer of Stalin, who owns a lingerie shop in the Chilean port of Tocopilla. Convinced Alejandro is not manly enough, the father arranges various tests of his masculinity, which culminates in the boy becoming the mascot of the local fire brigade, accompanying them on a call-out to the local slums, and then breaking down at the funeral of a fire-fighter killed during that fire. In amongst that, you have a variety of life lessons taught to Alejandro by both real and symbolic characters. But it’s not so much the symbolism and imagery, these are things Jodorowsky has used both in his films and his bandes dessinées, and to anyone familiar with his work, they’re clear and obvious and play unambiguous roles in the story. But, more than that, The Dance of Reality actually looks pretty damn good too. The colours are vibrant, the tracking seamless, and the editing unobtrusive. The Dance of Reality is technically expert – and it’s an odd realisation to have while watching it because a) Jodorowsky’s films are better known for being bonkers, b) he hasn’t made a film for two decades, and c) the film is very nepotistic, with Jodorowsky’s three sons playing major roles and his grandson playing the lead. But it’s a good film. It’s a weird film, of course – but you expect that. And though I’ve seen all of Jodorowsky’s feature-length films (er, except the sequel to The Dance of Reality, titled Endless Poetry, which I have on the TBR (see here)), I was surprised at how well made The Dance of Reality proved to be. I’m now looking forward to watching Endless Poetry.

The Man from the Future, Cláudio Torres (2011, Brazil). I’ve no idea where I stunbled across this, but you can’t go wrong with a time-travel movie – even if they do all use the same damn plot – so I bunged it on my rental list. It was kinda fun, without ringing any fresh changes on the genre. I enjoyed it, but if you want to see a time-travel film there are better examples out there. Zero is a genius physicist who teaches at a university, much to his disgust, but is also experimenting on the side with a project to develop a new energy source. He is bitter and twisted, having never recovered, emotionally or mentally, from being humiliated at a university party twenty years before by his girlfriend of the time, Helena, now a world-famous model. It turns out Zero’s invention sends him back in time to the night of his humiliation, which he obviously tries to prevent by telling his past self what’s about to go down. But that changes the future and Zero wakes up in a new – to him – present, in which he is a multi-billionaire, has lost all his friends, and the love of his life, Helena, is in prison for drugs offences. So he has to go back in time again to correct his interference… You can see where this is going. It’s actually quite cleverly done, although the multiple iterations of the same short section of time, the aforementioned university party, do pall a bit. And Zero isn’t a great hero. But there’s a happy ending, so all’s well that ends well, so to speak.

To Joy, Ingmar Bergman (1950, Sweden). When I put this in the DVD player, I tweeted “am about to watch a Bergman film called To Joy and I think that title is probably a lie”… And within five minutes, the movie’s dialogue went something like “The paraffin stove exploded” and “Your wife died on the way to the infirmary”. So I guess I was right. Not joyful at all. Except, it sort of, well, is. Because the film immediately jumps back in time to when the two leads – the lead violinist and a violinist in an orchestra – first begin seeing each other. They had met at the academy but it’s only when he joins the orchestra that they fall in love and eventually get married. And the film follows their marriage, through its up and downs, and through the career ups and downs of the lead violinist, up to the point where they reconcile after a bad split and she takes the kids off to a holiday cottage with a paraffin stove… The film is set in Helsingborg, and the town features quite heavily, which gives the film less of a stagey aspect than many of Bergman’s films. The same is also true of the scenes where the orchestra rehearses, five minutes of just orchestral music, with no dialogue or narrative impetus. It’s not one of Bergman’s best, but it’s an interesting piece.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 874


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From silver screen to silver disc

I’ll continue to post these DVD hauls posts, I think, since I seem to be spending as much time on this blog writing about movies as I do books. Er, actually probably more about movies, this past twelve months or so. And so here are the latest batch to join the collection…

I decided it was about time I completed my collection of Bergman DVDs, so I went hunting on eBay… and found myself cheap copies of The Virgin Spring, Port of Call, Three Strange Loves, To Joy and Music in Darkness. Some of them are currently deleted. And I’m still missing about a dozen or so titles. I’ve only watched To Joy so far. It was not very joyful.

A pair of sf Blu-rays picked up in the recent Amazon Prime Day. Colossus: The Forbin Project, a classic giant-computer-starts-WWIII movie, was on my rental list. Mars, a National Geographic docudrama about the first mission to Mars, clearly designed to cash in on the success of The Martian, was already on my wishlist.

After watching Arabian Nights (see here), I wanted to see more Pasolini, although I’d been tempted back in January when I’d watched Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom… But I’d managed to resist temptation then. Except, well, you know how it goes… relaxing of an evening in front of the telly, laptop on your knees, bottle of wine… and oops I’ve gone and bought Six Films 1968 – 1975 by Pasolini on Blu-ray. But I don’t begrudge buying films on a whim that I know I’ll watch several times. Having saidthat, I’m not sure why I bought Orson Welles’s Macbeth – well, I put a bid on it, and actually won it – but I do like Welles’s films.

A pair of out-of-copyright Fritz Lang movies, bought on eBay for a couple of quid. Neither are especially good. I wrote about Clash by Night here and Moonfleet will be in the next Moving pictures post.

This set was a lucky find on eBay. Second Run have released several films by Miklós Jancsó, but these six Pepe and Kapa movies are from the end of his career and are unlikely to ever be released in the UK (these are Hungarian editions, with subtitles in a variety of languages, including English). The titles translate, approximately, as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest, Mother! The Mosquitos, Last Supper at the Arabian Grey Horse, Wake Up, Mate, Don’t You Sleep, The Modhács Evil and Eddie Has Eaten My Lunch.0


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Moving pictures 2017, #38

I had a Reading diary post lined up next after my last Moving pictures post, but it takes me longer to write about books – chiefly because books take longer to read than films to watch, so I need to remind myself of the earlier ones in a post, and, also, a lot more happens in a book than in a film. I’m also working on a post about the Clarke Award, perhaps even the current state of awards, but I’m not even sure I’ll bother publishing that one. These days, no one gives a shit about honest criticism, reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hype, and fans are more concerned with protecting the ego of their creator friends than they are in any sort of real conversation about the genre. But who knows, perhaps I’ll end up in a ranty mood one evening… and publish and be damned…

But, until then, it’s…. the return of the film post! Only a couple of days after the last one! And the one before that! And it’s only the thirty-eighth I’ve written so far this year alone! (Out of probably about forty-two actual blog posts. Oh well.) The movies in this batch were all a bit random, chosen chiefly because I wasn’t in the mood to think too hard about what to watch.

The Woman Next Door, François Truffaut (1981, France). So I went and bought the François Truffaut Collection Blu-ray box set, because it was going cheap and I’d found myself increasingly drawn to his films, and of the eight films in the set I’d only seen four, so it was pretty much a bargain. And the first disc I pulled from the box was The Woman Next Door, a film about which I knew nothing. Although from the cover art, it clearly starred Fanny Ardant, whom I’d watched only the week before in, er, Truffaut’s Finally, Sunday, also in this collection (see here). The male lead is Gerard Depardieu, and while I’ve always thought him a good actor, in this film he seemed to shift between blank-faced and hyper-emotive, with nothing in between. He and his wife and small boy live in a house in a village near Grenoble. The empty next-door house is rented by a couple around the same age… and the wife, Ardant, turns out to be a woman Depardieu had had a turbulent relationship with before getting married. Their affair rekindles, but it doesn’t go well. He kicks off at a barbecue with the neighbours, she has an incident at the local tennis club… Much as I enjoyed The Woman Next Door, it felt like many of its narrative hooks were left unexplored or unresolved. Ardant was good, as indeed were the supporting cast, but I wasn’t convinced by Depardieu… And the end result was a film that promised more than it delivered. Even the final shock twist felt a bit meh, given what had gone on before. I still admire Truffaut for his films, but this isn’t one of his best ones; and though its slick performances might convince some that is the case, he’s made much better.

The Lavender Hill Mob*, Charles Crichton (1951, UK). I had a feeling I’d seen this before, but I couldn’t remember the details… and when I came to watch it, pretty much everything in it was immediately familiar. Alec Guiness plays a mild-mannered bank clerk whose job entails fetching gold bullion from a foundry, and accompanying it in an armoured lorry to the bank. He’s completely trusted, but he’s planning to steal a shipment of gold just before he retires. His only problem is how transport the stolen gold out of the country. When the owner of Gewgaws Ltd, a company that makes tourist trinkets, moves into the boarding-house in which Guiness lives, he has his answer. Among the souveniers Gewgaws manufactures are gold-painted lead miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, sold in Paris. By making a consignment out of real gold, they can send them to France undetected. To help them in the robbery, the two recruit a pair of criminals, using the Gewgaws premises as a honeypot by talking loudly about a broken safe there, full of wages, on the Tube. The robbery goes more or less according to plan – there are a few hiccoughs, but the police are clueless, so it all comes right in the end. Until they get to France… and discover their Parisian contact has sold six of the real gold Eiffel Towers… to a party of British schoolgirls. And it’s the robbers’ attempts to get back those missing Eiffel Towers that proves their undoing. Ealing Studios have always been well-branded, and it’s easy to see why – their films are very distinctive. There’s a breeziness to the comedy in them, despite their obvious Britishness, that no other studio of the time managed. It’s almost a a sketch-show type of humour, but grounded in quickly- but effectively-drawn characters that carry over from one set-piece to the next. It is, in other words, jolly good fun. And if it all seems a bit implausible in places, that’s the part of the charm. But I’m not entirely sure why it rates a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Blow Out, Brian De Palma (1981, USA). I’ve never really known what to make of De Palma. He’s pretty much a straight-to-video director who manages to get theatrical releases, a sub-B-lister who is treated like a low-level A-lister. It’s not as if he makes bad films, although his use of split-screen is an affectation too far, but his movies mostly seem massively unoriginal. Blow Out is, apparently, De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but if it is then De Palma has either never seen Blow-Up or has completely misunderstood it. Travolta plays a sound technician who is out one night recording ambient sound for the latest straight-to-video schlock horror movie he is working on, when he witnesses a car plummetting into a river. He dives in and rescues one of the passengers, a young woman. The other, who dies, proves to be a politician tipped to be the next president. Travolta analyses the recordings he made on the night, and realises there is a gunshot before the car lost control – someone shot out a tyre. The rest of the movie is Travolta trying to figure out what’s going on, while a hired assassin runs round trying to clean up the mess he has inadvertently made, and it’s all pretty much by-the-numbers thriller material. Lithgow is creepy, but not especially plausible, as the assassin, the parts about the film industry feel more like in-jokes than character development or background, and the dimwittedness of some of the characters contradicts their ability to avoid the noose the conspiracy is drawing about them. I have no idea why I stuck this on the rental list.

Clash by Night, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I mentioned several Moving pictures posts ago that I’d been making an effort over the last few years to see every film directed by Otto Preminger. The same is true for Fritz Lang. Their shared nationality is a coincidence. As are their Hollywood careers as chiefly directors of well-regarded noir films. With Lang, you have those early silent classics, not to mention the Mabuse trilogy, or even the frankly bizarre India-set pulp adventure movies on which he finished his career. But, like Preminger, during his Hollywood years Lang made a wide variety of films – yes, including a couple of Westerns… and melodramas… like Clash by Night. Which is, er, not very good. Barbara Stanwyck plays the wild girl who returns to her fishing port home after years living it up away. She falls in with simple trawler captain Jerry, who introduces her to his wise-cracking mate, Earl, the projectionist. Earl is clearly more Stanwyck’s type, but she marries Jerry. But then Earl is a nasty piece of work, so it’s easy enough to understand why she rejects him. Although only for a few years… and then the marriage begins to fracture when Stanwyck does indeed take up with Earl… This is one of those gritty urban melodramas the US churned out by the yard back in the first half of the twentieth century, in which middle-class problems were ascribed to working-class families, but with added domestic violence. There is a horribly offensive thread running throughout this film in which men claim the only way to control their spouses is through violence. The relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes (Stanwyck’s “brother”) basically consists of him controlling her through threats of violence. It’s nasty stuff. There are some classic US melodramas from the 1950s. This is not one of them. Despite its director. Best avoided.

In Bloom, Nana Ekvtimishvili (2013, Georgia). I can’t remember where I came across mention of this Georgian film, but I suspect it was a trailer on another DVD. The directors are actually given as Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, but given that the former has a Wikipedia page and the latter does not, and the latter is also credited as a producer, I’m tempted to cast Groß as more of a facilitator… except it turns out the two are a couple, so perhaps it’s even more complicated. Still, this is a film set in Georgia, about Georgian people, and Ekvtimishvili is given preference as director, and she is actually Georgian, so I will do the same and credit her with the lion’s share. (And kudos to Groß, he seems content to let his partner represent the two of them.) Two fourteen-year-old girls get into trouble when one of them gets hold of a gun and uses it to rescue a younger kid from a bullying. Except it’s not about that, it’s about growing up during the Georgian Civil War, and about being a teenage girl during those turbulent times, and this is by no means a cheerful film, and certainly not one likely to re-affirm your confidence in humanity’s good nature – these days, the only films which do that are superhero ones, and they only do it for superheroes, so how fucked up is that? But there’s a rawness to Ekvtimishvili’s vision that lends her story a verisimilitude Hollywood could only dream of (this is not something unique to In Bloom, but it is something Hollywood strives for and fails to achieve). A depressing story, but worth seeing.

Two for the Road, Stanley Donen (1967, UK). Apparently eureka! have released a dual edition of this film, but the rental copy I watched was a terrible transfer, no better than VHS quality in places. And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why it deserves the treatment eureka! have given it. It’s pretty much a couple bickering, in cars, over a decade. Okay, so the chronology jumps back and forth quite cleverly, and the way the film signals at which stage of the relationship/marriage it is set works really well (er, it’s the model of car). But it’s still two people bickering. And it’s not helped by the choice of leads. I’ve never really taken to Albert Finney – he plays everything flat and snide, and it makes him unlikeable. When he tries for charm, as he often does here, it often falls flat, especially when he’s doing his terrible Bogart impression. Finney does some things really well, but romantic lead isn’t one of them. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand, should be a natural romantic lead – and indeed has been in many films. But here she’s playing a woman from callow teenager to jaded housewife, and it’s beyond her range. She does either end of the spectrum well, but she can’t manage the transition – or rather, the transition doesn’t seem convincing when it happens to her. Of course, it doesn’t help that the version I saw was a terrible transfer. Perhaps there were subtleties I missed. Certainly, the film’s structure was cleverly done, and there were some good lines of dialogue (and an amusing running joke about Finney and his passport), but the couple also went from young and hapless to privileged and insulated with a speed and lack of commentary that is almost breathtaking (although not altogether surprising given the time the film was made). I wanted to like Two for the Road, either as fluff or as something a bit more serious… but it failed on both counts. One for Audrey Hepburn fans only.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 874


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Moving pictures 2017, #37

To people visiting this site after following the link from the Apollo Quartet audio book humble bundle (here), apologies. I normally write about science fiction and writing and critcism and sometimes even space exploration and technology… but for the past 18 months the $dayjob has sort of taken over and this blog has sort of turned into a film blog. I like films, I’ve always liked films. And I like to think I have good taste in films. I especially like films from other cultures, or from directors with very distinctive visions – auteurs, if you will. So, sadly, I’ve been blogging a lot about films for the last year or so. Normal service will be resumed at some point. Then I’ll starting writing criticism and stuff about science fiction, I’ll have the bandwidth to to invest in that sort of stuff. But, for now, it’s movies mostly. But they are good movies. Mostly.

King Kong*, Merian C Cooper & Ernest B Schoedsack (1933, USA). Everyone knows the story of King Kong – you know, giant ape, “was beauty killed the beast” – although it’s likely from one of the remakes. The one I remember best is the Jessica Lange one from 1976… although, I say “remember”, but all I can actually recall is the basic story – you know, giant ape, “was beauty killed the beast”… This 1933 edition is the original, made by the guys who actually invented King Kong. A film director known for making adventurous and dangerous films is about to embark on his latest project, shooting on an island whose location he refuses to reveal. He has decided his project needs a love interest but can find no actress willing to accompany him on his expedition/shoot. Desperate, he goes looking for a suitable star on the night the ship he has chartered is due to depart… and stumbles across homeless Fay Wray, who is more than happy to accept his somewhat vague offer of employment. The ship sails to an uncharted island somewhere in the Pacific, where the natives worship a giant ape called Kong, and sacrifice young women to it at intervals. When the natives catch sight of Wray, they know Kong just gonna love her. (Why? Kong is a gorilla. Surely he lusts after, well, other gorillas?) The natives kidnap Wray and leave her for Kong. First mate on the ship and male love interest charges off to rescue her. There’s lots of stop-motion photography of Kong fighting dinosaurs. For 1933, it’s pretty effective. The hardy Americans manage to capture Kong, and take him back to New York to exhibit him to an eager audience… This is pure pulp, and unashamedly so. And, I guess, it could qualify as seminal, given that King Kong himself has become a cultural icon. And I can certainly understand the argument that seminal movies, as well as ones that are just plain excellent, belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You die list… And, let’s be fair, King Kong is pretty trashy, but it’s entertaining trash and it never claimed to be anything more (unlike some of its remakes kof kof). I’ve now seen it, I’m glad I’ve seen it, I’ll likely never ever see it again, but that’s okay.

The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi (2016, Iran). The title refers to Arthur Miller’s play, as the film’s two leads are rehearsing for a production of it in Tehran in which they play the chief roles. The film opens with their family fleeing from their apartment building as the tenants are afraid it is about to collapse – a wall has fallen over, and building standards are apparently so poor in Iran it’s not uncommon for the entire building to follow suit. Forced to find another home, they turn to a fellow cast-member, who offers them a recently-vacated apartment in his building. So they move in. The other tenants in the building, remembering the previous tenant of the apartment, are a little worried, because, well, because of what happens. One evening, on her own in the flat, the wife takes a shower. The entryphone buzzes. Thinking it’s her husband returning from the supermarket, she presses the button and unlocks the front door. It is not her husband. And when he does arrive home, he finds his wife is missing and there is blood in the bathroom. She’s in hospital, having been assaulted. She doesn’t know who her assailant was. But he’d been surprised by neighbours, and ran off, leaving his pickup truck behind. So the husband uses it to track the man down… You can imagine how this would go if it were made in Hollywood, with either Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson… Happily, it doesn’t do that. The wife wants to forget about the incident, the husband wants revenge. And when he identifies the attacker, he sets out to have his revenge, only for that to go not as intended. I know of ‘Death of a Salesman’, but I’m not that familiar with it, so how it integrates into the story of the film is lost on me. I suspect the two stories resonate off each other, but I’m guessing – you don’t see enough the play in the film to judge. I was less than taken with Farhadi’s film prior to this, The Past, which felt like an ordinary French drama, but The Salesman is much, much better, a return to the films Farhadi had been making before.

Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria). The title is a bit of a fib, as this documentary doesn’t follow the actual last ambulance still operating in the Bulgarian capital, although the fleet is a fraction of what it once was. It’s the age-old story: a civilised society creates free healthcare for all… but then in come the capitalists and rentiers and plutocrats and they know people will never refuse to pay for medical care so they defund and destroy the public system, then mendaciously claim it doesn’t work, and so privatise it, thus earning themselves great profits. This should be made a crime. It’s no better than selling arms – worse, in fact, because people can choose not to pull the trigger, but they cannot choose not to be ill or injured. It’s past time for a change in attitude: profiting from healthcare is the action of scumbags. Anyway, Sofia’s Last Ambulance follows a single ambulance over several days. The camera remains focused throughout on the crew, and the patients are never revealed. Many of the scenes show them sitting in the cabin of their ambulance. Judging by the way the vehicle bounces around, the roads in Sofia are also in a shocking state. There are several scenes also set in the back of the ambulance, including one where a man involved in a RTA is in severe pain and keeps on sitting up, despite being repeatedly told not to – so much so, the paramedic tells him, “If you don’t lie down, you’ll leave your leg here on the stretcher!” (or words to that effect). The scariest part about Sofia’s Last Ambulance is that it’s a pretty good indication of what the NHS will look like post-Brexit, post- a decade of Tory cuts and corruption and robbery and lies. I’m actually starting to look back on Thatcher’s government with fondness, that’s how incompetent, malicious, corrupt and damaging both Cameron’s and May’s governments have been, and still are being. Their excuses are so thin, only a moron would swallow them. Bah. Sofia’s Last Ambulance: an excellent documentary. The UK’s Conservative government: a bunch of criminals that has repeatedly abused human rights.

Children of Heaven, Majid Majidi (1997, Iran). While there’s no mistaking Iranian cinema, I do sometimes have trouble distinguishing its directors – well, mostly. Children of Heaven, for example, reminded me of The Apple, but that was directed by Samira Makhmalbaf. And while Kiarostami possessed a singular vision, it was evident more in the structure of his films than in the shots he framed or the stories he told. Of course, there’s always a danger in confusing characteristics of a nation’s cinema with the visions of individual directors. After all, not every film made in India is three hours long and features singing and dancing. And while I’ve seen a number of films from Iran – twenty-one, at the last count – I doubt that’s enough to get a true handle on the film-making traditions in the country. After all, in this Moving pictures post alone, there are two Iranian directors, Majidi and Farhadi, and both create very different films, but both of which seem, to me, very much portraits of their country. In Children of Heaven, a young boy and his younger sister are forced to share a pair of ratty old plimsolls – because the sister’s shoes were stolen when the boy was on way hone from picking them up from the cobbler. The shoe-sharing results in the boy being late for school several times, and also several amusing incidents with the girl losing one or the other plimsoll (as they’re too big for her). But then she spots her old shoes on another girl’s feet, and follows her home. But she can’t work up the courage to claim her shoes back, and the girl seems in innocent of the theft anyway. The boy’s school then announces there is a nation-wide children’s 4-km running competition, the third prize for which is a holiday and a pair of Adidas trainers. The boy enters, and wins a place on his school’s team. He wants to win third prize, so he can have the trainers, and his sister then have the ratty plimsolls for herself… For a film whose two leads are under the age of ten but operating in an adult world, it comes as no surprise that Children of Heaven is big on charm. There’s not a great deal in the lives of the working-class Iranian in Tehran that’s actually charming per se – their father has to beg for work, and goes round pressing on entry buzzers at big houses asking for gardening work. and, to be fair, the whole plot hinges on the fact the family cannot to keep the two children properly shod. But the two kids are absolutely fantastic in their roles, and seeing how well they handle their parts actually makes the movie quite uplifting. They’re all in tears at the end, and they’re not tears of happiness, but it’s nonetheless a happy ending. I forget now why I added this film to my rental list, but it really is very good. Definitely worth watching.

Once upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011, Turkey). I forget also why I added this to my rental list – or rather, I forget who recommended it and when. I’ve watched less than half a dozen films from Turkey, but I know Ceylan’s name from Uzak, which I watched back in 2012. And I remember it as being very good. Which ended up making Once Upon a Time in Anatolia something of a curate’s egg. It feels in part like an attempt at a Tarantino film (but why would anyone want to do that?), and follows a plot that could take place just about anywhere… yet it’s still peculiarly Turkish. The police have driven two murders out into the country to dig up the body of their victim. But the murderers are having trouble remembering precisely where they buried it. Meanwhile, the police talk among themselves, sometimes in Tarantino-esque dialogue, sometimes in the sort of elliptical hypothetical story more common in East European/West Asian films and stories. Eventually, the murderers take the police to the right place, and they dig up their victim. But then they realise they have no body-bags, and the corpse won’t fit in the boots of their cars. Ths is a film in which the story being told is actually incidental to the dialogue – the hunt for the murder victim’s buried body just provides structure, everything is in the conversations between the principals. And the problem with such films is that because the dialoguie skips all over the place, there’s no real structure to the story. Once upon a Time in Anatolia works because the hunt for the body is surreal enough, and yet real enough, to provide a framework for the dialogue. And some of the dialogue also links back into the framing plot – such as the one about the man whose wife died of mysterious means on the day she said she would die, and how an autopsy revealed she’d had a heart attack but not how she’d been able to predict it – and that connects to the autopsy of the murder victim and its findings. A good film. I think I’ll add the rest of Ceylan’s oeuvre – he’s made seven feature-length films, all of which are available – to my rental list.

Eroica, Andrzej Munk (1958, Poland). Munk’s Passenger is an incomplete classic of cinema, but he apparently managed to finish three movies, of which Eroica is the second. Though the the title refers to a piece of classical music – by Beethoven – its alternative title of “Heroism”, while obvious in the way US publishers like to be obvious, does explain its story better. The film consist of two separate stories, both of which take place in Poland during WWII. (There was apparently a third segment, but Munk cut it, and it eventually appeared on Polish television fourteen years later.) In the first story, a con-man deserts from his home guard unit and returns home to discover his wife has taken up with the commanding officer of the Hungarian company garrisoned locally. The Hungarian tells him he’s willing to change sides, and bring his men and artillery over to the Poles. So the con-man – called Dzidziuś, which Google translate tells me means “baby”, but which the subtitles translate as “Babyface”, an odd name for a man in his thirties – must walk to Warsaw to tell the Home Army about the Hungarian’s offer. And then head back home to offer terms, and then back again to give the Hungarian’s response. The second story is set in a POW camp. A Polish officer allegedly succeeded in escaping, the only one to do so, and his success has been good for morale. Except, he didn’t escape, he’s been hiding in the attic all the time. But those who know this can’t reveal it because he would then be taken by the German guards and, of course, it would be bad for prisoner morale. Meanwhile, the other prisoners make assorted fruitless attempts to escape. The story focuses on a group of officers sharing a single bunk-room – the camp comprises stone buildings, rather than the wooden huts more commonly seen in such films – as seen thrugh the eyes of two new prisoners assigned to the room. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the alternative title applies, although they’re typically Polish, and blackly comic, definitions of the term: the man who performs heroic deeds simply in order to have an easier life, and the hero whose reputation rests on a deed that was a lie. Another solid entry in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema volumes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 873


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Moving pictures 2017, #36

I watch on average two films a night. I’ve pretty much given up on broadcast and cable television, which is a shame as there are programmes on there I’d like to see. But with 200-odd channels, it’s almost impossible to find when and where they might be. I used to buy a newspaper every Saturday so I had a TV guide, but it was a piss-poor guide and only included about a tenth of the channels. I tried buying one of those TV guide magazines, the one that’s only about 65p and seems to be mostly about soap stars (oh wait, they’re all mostly about soap stars)… Anyway, they have schedules for far more channels than I have access to, so finding what I wanted to watch was no easier. I’ve also tried using tvguide.co.uk, but it’s horribly designed and never seems to remember my settings. I suppose these days people use Tivos and YouView boxes and such, and they have the facility to calendar and/or record programmes… but Virginmedia refuse to give me a Tivo and I even had to wait until my old set top box broken before I was given a HD one. Bah, technology.

On the other hand, I do get to watch a large number of (mostly) great films, with a much greater variety in topics, locations and languages. So it’s not like I’m losing out.

To Catch A Thief, Alfred Hitchcock (1954, USA). Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors, I have about eighty percent of the films he made – and he made a lot of films. As far as Hitchcock movies go, To Catch A Thief is a bit of fluff, which has been over the years its chief appeal. It’s the Hitch equivalent of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” – although that would presuppose Hitch made other films of the same ilk, and it’s hard to think of which might qualify – The Trouble with Harry, perhaps? Nonetheless, To Catch A Thief is so much lighter than his usual fare, which is probably why it’s great fun. Cary Grant, at his most teabag-tannish, is a retired cat burglar living on the French Riviera. But someone has been stealing the jewellery of wealthy guests to the region and everyone assumes Grant has come out of retirement. He’s determined to prove his innocence. So he teams up with an agent of an insurance company, and gets to know a rich US widow and her nubile daughter (Grace Kelly). Grant is at his most oleaginous, but it actually feels a little creepy in this, which is not something I’d noticed before. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many early Grant films since last watching To Catch A Thief. Kelly is great – it’s one of her three best roles, along with Rear Window and High Society  – and the supporting cast are all top-notch. It’s all pure Hitchcock from start to finish, from the adept use of location shooting to studio close-ups, from the script full of misdirection to hints at a back-story.  It’s the setting more than anything that makes it feel like fluff. I only mention this in this film post because I recently bought a Blu-ray copy of the film – it was only a fiver (but not anymore, I see) – and I have to admit it’s a very nice transfer. The richer colours don’t work in everyone’s favour – Grant looks like he’s been creosoted – but it’s a superior print to the one on my DVD. Well worth £5.

Tabu, Miguel Gomes (2012, Portugal). I think I stuck this on my rental list because it was a Portugese film, although apparently it was at some point one of the most internationally successful Portugese films of all time. And while it reminded me in several ways of another Portugese film I’d seen, Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (see here), so much so I wondered if the similarities were actually a characteristic of Portugese cinema, it also reminded me a great deal of Jauja (see here), which is from Argentina… Tabu opens with a prologue set in the nineteenth century in Africa – it doesn’t say where, but it’s implied it’s Lusophone… so Angola or Mozambique? – in which a man hunts a crocodile following the suicide of his wife, is killed by the crocodile, and henceforth there are sightings of a ghostly woman and a crocodile. The film abruptly shifts to present-day Lisbon and a trio of women. The oldest of these, Aurora, is eccentric, and when she goes into hospital and is near to death’s door, the other two women at her request track down a man called Gian-Luca… and the film flashes back to Aurora’s early twenties in Portugese Africa… where she married a local land-owner, but then had an affair with Gian-Luca, and nearly died in childbirth. The whole film is shown mostly with a voice-over standing in for dialogue. It gives the story a literary feel, but also distances the viewer, something I also noted about Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. The thing is, it’s so different to most popular narrative cinema that, if it is a peculiarity of Portugese cinema (and, admittedly, I don’t know that it is), then I have to wonder how Portugese film-goers actually, well, view films. Imagine someone who had been brought up on entirely on nineteenth-centiry literature being given a modern best-seller to read. It feels like that. Which is not to say that Tabu is a bad film. On the contrary, it’s very good indeed. And if the prologue never really quite justifies its place in the story, it’s well presented and entertaining. Otherwise, the present day sections are not so interesting, but the flashback is good – the actor playing the young Gian-Luca, Carloto Cotta, is especially good. I added Tabu to my rental list on a seeming whim, you can add it to yours knowing it was recommended. Worth seeing.

Daughter of the Nile, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1987, Taiwan). I’m a big fan of Hou’s films, and have been ever since stumbling across his name somewhere, ordering a box set of his DVDs from Korea on a whim, and watching them and discovering how bloody good they are. He’s made a lot of films, and their availability in the UK is… Random, at best. Perverse, possibly. Happily, eureka! have just released a dual edition of one of his films, so that’s one I can cross off the list. Daughter of the Nile is a very Hou film, amost emblematic of his style without being representative of his oeuvre – if that makes sense. Hou makes films about the disaffected, as do the Sixth Generation Chinese directors, although Hou is, obviously, Taiwanese not Chinese. But Daughter of the Nile is also about affluence and adulthood, and while Hou does his thing with static shots and long shots – and it’s a style I very much like myself – Daughter of the Nile does feel more… kinetic than others films by Hou I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the gangster sub-plot… The main story describes a young woman who works at KFC, attends night school, and must look after her younger brother and sister. He’s the gangster. And he provides the film’s few moment of real drama – a shooting touside a night-club being one. I’d forgotten while watching the film that it was released in 1987… until a character pulled out a pager and then rang someone on a dial telephone. The fashions weren’t especially eighties, and usually films made in the 1980s look very eighties. But that’s more of an observation than a criticism. I think I’ll have to watch Daughter of the Nile again some time. Happily, Hou’s films bear repeated watchings.

Goodbye Gemini, Alan Gibson (1970, UK). I saw a trailer for this on a rental DVD, Say Hello to Yesterday (see here), and thought it worth seeing… and luckily managed to find a copy on eBay for a few quid. And, well, it’s okay, I guess. It’s very much a film of its time. A pair of twins arrive in London from South America, immediately arrange for the – murder? I’m not sure – of their housekeeper/guardian, go out pubbing and run into an unsavoury crowd. Well, not really unsavoury. They’re movieland 1960s swinging Englanders, into Johnnie Walker, flares, sideburns, fatuous dialogue and a social scene in which all men over the age of thirty are depicted as camp chickenhawks but no one is actually gay… Anyway, it seems the twins like each other a bit too much, and when the female of the pair falls for a gambler and wastrel, who then tries blackmailing the male of the pair, it all ends badly. While Goodbye Gemini was every bit as 1970 as Say Hello to Yesterday, it didn’t have Minis or silver birches. In fact, it looked generic 1960s. It did well on ther fashions, but less well on the scenery. So-so.

Sia, The Dream of the Python, Dani Kouyaté (2001, Burkina Faso). There are, to date, four volumes of Great African Films, each containing a pair of movies, and I plan to get hold of copies of all four. But they’re not easy to find. Well, in the US they seemingly are, but the company responsible for them seems reluctant to sell outside North America… Which is a shame, as these are are Region 0 DVDs and well worth seeing. I tracked down a second-hand copy of the first volume – Haramuya by Drissa Toure (Burkina Faso) and Faraw: Mother of the Dunes by Abdoulaye Ascofaré (Mali) (see here and here) – and  the raw potential of the two films more than justified the hassle and expense in finding copies. And while this second volume was no easier to find, although at least this one was new, the pure film-making story-telling of, at least, Sia, The Dream of the Python, proves it was another good purchase and well worth the expense. The story is relatively straightforward. It;s based on, apparently, a seventh-century myth, but there’s no real indication of when it is set. Some elements of it feel contemporary, some feel historical. Basically, a man’s daughter is earmarked for sacrifice to the python god, but she runs away the night before. The king’s troops fail to find her. Then her boyfriend, a powerful warrior, returns from the front, and overthrows the king and takes the throne. And it’s like watching half a dozen bog standard fantasies played out in their ur-version in a world that is richer and more real than the authors of said fantasies could ever conceive. It’s a not a perfect film, by any means. Some of its cast are plainly amateur, and it often promises more than it can deliver on its budget. But these Great African Films DVDs are definitely worth tracking down, and certainly belong in the library of self-respecting film fan.

Footprints on the Moon, Luigi Bazzoni (1975, Italy). Sometimes you see a film and you think, I’ll have a bit of that, and then when it arrives you wonder why you picked it in the first place. I’ve watched several giallo over the years – both those classified as thrillers and those classified as horror – and some I’ve enjoyed while others I’ve thought were trash. Footprints on the Moon certainly has arresting DVD cover art, and an opening credit sequence in which a black-and-white LM descends onto the lunar surface, so surely it has to appeal… And I’ve watched it twice now and I think goddamnit I’m going to buy myself a copy because it’s a hidden gem and bears rewatching. It’s a giallo,  no doubt about that; but it’s one of those rare giallos that falls into no known genre. A woman who works as a translator discovers she has mysteriously lost three days. She finds a postcard from a holiday island that has fallen on hard times, and goes there. Where she is repeatedly mistaken for a woman who looks exactly like her but who was on the island several days previously. The plot resembles a psychological thriller with a twist in which the writer hadn’t quite thought everything through properly. But the decision to film the scenes on the “island” in Istanbul gives the whole film a sort of, well, Hav-ish feel, which, unintendedly, has made the place much more interesting. The invented island has become an even more so invented place. This is only confused further by the protagonist finding, and then wearing, a wig which makes her look precisely like the woman for whom everyone is confusing her. Add in a bizarre subplot, which gives the film its title, in which the woman dreams of a secret project where an astronaut is left to die on the Moon, and which is where top-billed star Klaus Kinski briefly appears… And, well, it’s completely insane. I can see I’ll be spending a lifetime defending this film, but I really do think it’s a forgotten classic. Go and rent it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 872


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Moving pictures 2017, #35

I was described recently as a “film nerd”, which felt wrong somehow. I’m a “film fan”, certainly. In much the same way I’m a science fiction fan. I’ve been a subscriber to Sight & Sound since the late 1990s, and when I’ve liked a director’s work I’ve tried to watch as much as their oeuvre as I can find. The first director for which I did this was Alfred Hitchcock. Back in the late 1990s, when I was living out in the Middle East, I visited the UK one leave, and bought two DVD box sets of his films – the box sets, in fact, I recently upgraded to Blu-ray. My taste in movies has changed a bit in the years since I bought those Hitchcock DVDs, so much so that I now have to look a bit further afield for the sort of films I like to watch. Although I do still think Hitchock is an excellent director. But sometimes – often – I have no choice except to purchase a copy from some obscure source, because it’s not available for rental, streaming, or in your local HMV. I don’t think that makes me a film nerd – although, to be fair, I do currently own rather a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays…

Cyclo*, Tran Anh Hung (1995, Vietnam). There is only one Vietnamese film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s this one. I’ll admit I’ve seen very few Vietnamese films – in fact, this is only the second. Although, weirdly, it’s the second film I’ve seen by Tran – I reviewed his 2009 film, I Come with the Rain, actually a French film, for videovista.net several years ago. Anyway, I find it hard to believe the compilers of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list could find six films by Vincente Minnelli to include but only one from Vietnam. But it is, it must be said, a good one. The title refers to the profession of the main character – he pedals a bicycle taxi, or “cyclo”, about the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. He is not named throughout the film. His father died in a traffic accident some time before. He lives with his grandfather, who repairs bicycle tyres for a living, his older sister, who carries water in a local market, and his young sister, who shines shoes in local restaurants. They are dirt poor and pretty much live hand-to-mouth existence. But then the cyclo gets involved with gangsters, and his prospects start to look up. But it all goes horribly wrong when he is asked to kill someone but fails after overdosing on the drugs he was given to “calm him down”. This is all pretty grim stuff, and the way the lower levels of society prey on each other, facilitated by those with means, is hard to watch. At one point, the cyclo driver stops for a piss, and while he’s peeing against a fence, thieves run up and steal his cyclo. Given how much he depends on his cyclo, and how little he earns, and the fact hge doesn’t even own it but has paid a deposit to the owner of a cyclo company so he can use it… well, that’s pretty low. Of course, it’s always in the monied classes interests to have the lower classes fighting amongst themselves, because then they’re not fighting for what should rightfully be theirs. Cyclo certainly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d like to have seen more films from Vietnam on it. I shall definitely be keeping my eye open for more movies from that country that I can watch.

Forever Amber, Otto Preminger (1947, USA). For some reason, I decided to work my way through Preminger’s oeuvre… and it’s not a bad oeuvre for a Hollywood director, especially a non-US-born Hollywood director (of which there were, and are, many). Although best known for noir movies, Preminger’s films are especially interesting because of their variety, and their varied levels of success at whatever he made – Preminger’s one Western for example, was River of Now Return (see here), which was something of a failure but is still quite an interesting film. And Forever Amber, despite being a historical romance based on a schlocky best-seller, is nearly an interesting film. The same might also be said of Preminger’s attempt at a Euro-thriller, Rosebud. But, Forever Amber… The title character is the adopted daughter of a farmer in seventeenth-century England. After the Restoration, Amber, now a sixteen-year-old beauty (played by the twenty-three-year-old Linda Darnell) meets a Cavalier captain, and follows him to London. She starts moving in high circles, but no sooner has she found wealth then she is conned out of it and sent to Newgate. Her cavalier captain, meanwhile, has been a given a ship and sent privateering. She breaks out of Newgate with a footpad, and the two go into partnership, she luring and he mugging fops in dark alleys. The Watch catch her, but the captain gets her a job as an actress so she won’t hang. An earl takes a fancy to her after seeing her on the stage and marries her. But she still pines for her absent cavalier captain… The film is an adaptation of a 1944 best-selling romance by Kathleen Winsor. It was her first novel. Wikipedia says of the book: “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long.” WTF. Winsor went on to write a further seven novels, the first appearing six years after Forever Amber, and the last in 1986. It’s clear from Forever Amber, however, that she didn’t know much about seventeenth-century England. Rags to riches might be a romance staple plot, but Amber’s ups and downs beggar belief. And for a farm girl to end up married to an earl! While working as an actress! True, this is around the time Nell Gwynn first started appearing on stage  and later became the king’s mistress – but she was still under twenty and Amber would be almost a decade older. I suspect Gwynn might have been an inspiration for Amber. Even so, Gwynn’s career was far more… calculating than Amber’s history of lucky breaks. Foolishly, I went and bought a copy of the book on eBay for a couple of quid. One day, I might even get around to reading it.

A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, François Truffaut (1972, France). I’ve been enjoying the Truffaut films I’ve been watching, but this one was hard work in a way that made me think that perhaps it was me at fault. So I watched it again. And felt the same. I still don’t know why I bounced out of it, although I’m not apparently the only one to do so. A young sociologist arranges an interview with female inmate Camille Bliss, and records her as she tells her tale of woe – which is then presented in flashback. He decides she is innocent and finds sufficient evidence to prove her innocence, and she is duly released. After her release, Bliss becomes a singing star but a fling with the sociologist ends badly when her husband catches the two in the act. She kills her husband and frames the sociologist. Who is then sent to prison for the crime. I’m not sure why I didn’t click with A Gorgeous Girl Like Me. The more Truffaut I’ve been watching, the more I’ve come to appreciate his films. But not all of them. The Last Metro I thought a bit dull, despite a good story and high-powered cast. Shoot the Pianist I decided was the New-Wavest film that ever New-Waved. Day for Night had bags of charm, and Mississippi Mermaid had bags of gallic cachet. But A Gorgeous Girl Like Me just seemed to fall flat. Perhaps it was the self-centredness of Bliss, or the fact that some of her adventures just didn’t ring true, or even plausible. Fortunately, I went and bought The François Truffaut Collection on Blu-ray, which includes A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, so I’ll be able to watch it again and decide wther it really does work for me or not…

Miss Hokusai, Keiichi Hara (2015, Japan). I think it’s pretty clear who recommended this film, if not actually added it to my LoveFilm rental list one afternoon in the pub. The title refers to the daughter of the historically-famous artist, who was a reknowned artist in her own right. There is no plot as such to the film, just a series of incidents from her life. Some of them are fantastical, like the one where her father recounts a series of dreams where his hands sort of astral-project and travel all over the city, and he tells this to a famous oiran whose face, it transpires, astral projects while she is asleep. The animation is mostly very attractive, although there’s a lot of that anime-style mugging whose appeal bounces off me. In particular, there’s a student who works in Hokusai’s studio who’s played for laughs, and the comedy doesn’t work for me. The visiting artist who’s put forward as a love interest was a much more interesting character. Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the film works against it, because while it’s very nice to look at, and the characters quite clear, none of it is in service to a plot. True, I’ve not seen a great deal of anime, but I’ve seen a number of anime feature films I’ve thought very good – good enough, in fact, to pick up copies for myself. Miss Hokusai was somewhere around in the bottom of the top third, I think – much better than meh, but not quite really good.

Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade (2016, Germany). I had this on my rental list after hearing positive things about it (Sight & Sound were very complimentary, I seem to recall), but then discovered it was free on Amazon Prime. Result. And… it was one of those films which are quite obviously good, but you’re not sure if you’re enjoying it much. One minute, it’s engaging; the next you wonder why you’re watching it. But then, after it’s over, you decide on balance that it was actually a pretty good film. The title refers to someone who does not exist. A man in his sixties, a bit of a slob and a practical joker, decides that his workaholic daughter, currently working as a consultant on an asset-stripping project in Romania, needs to lighten up. Well, ostensibly, she’s helping a Romanian oil company outsource the maintenance of its oil refineries, but we all know that’s the first step in selling off national assets cheap to plutocrats so they can profit at the taxpayers’ expense… Anyway, he travels out to visit his daughter, but his presence is not really welcome – nor is it helped by him playing silly jokes, like handcuffing himself to his daughter and losing the key. So he leaves. Except he doesn’t. The day after, he introduces himself to the daughter and two of her friends in a restaurant, wearing a wig and false teeth, as “Toni Erdmann”. And he continues to pop up. It’s clear everyone thinks he’s a complete buffoon, but they’re not really sure if they should take him at his word, no matter how implausible it often is. And that’s part of the problem with the film, because Erdmann is a comic character who’s not all that comical. He’d be tragicomic, except there’s no tragedy here, only a father-daughter relationship that has eroded over time to almost nothing, and is now being strained by his intrusion into her life. But, of course, something has to give, and in Toni Erdmann it’s her resistance to his buffoonery and attempts to rebuild their relationship. Despite that, Toni Erdmann never manages to feel like a, er, “feel good” film. It makes for a weird disconnect, and it only really succeeds because everyone plays their part completely straight. A good film, but it takes a while before you realise it.

Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). I wasn’t sure what to make of Pasolini after seeing two of his films, but after watching Arabian Nights I think I have a better handle on his work, and I sort of like it, but I’m still not entirely convinced… If that makes sense. Arabian Nights has been described as the best cinema adaptation of (some of the stories in) The Arabian Nights. It’s true that it keeps the nested narrative structure of many of the stories, which is confusing enough when reading them… although Pasolini somehow manages not to confuse the viewer. And the locations in the film – Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and Nepal – are fantastic. Arabian Nights looks fabulous, but… like the other Pasolini films I’ve seen, the acting seems amateurish at best, the plotting somewhat haphazard, and the dialogue often just repeats what is plain to see there on the screen. But everything looks so, well, appropriate to the story, so much more so than in, say, The Thief of Bagdad from 1924, with its ersatz Arabian studio sets and made-up script standing in for Arabic (or Farsi). And yet, although the cover art suggests Arabian Nights is pure spectacle, it never quite seems like it. I’m not sure how Pasolini manages it, but there’s power in his films and that overcomes all the bits that don’t add up – the acting, the dialogue, the plotting. Also, Pasolini seems to like long shots, and I’m a sucker for long shots. Whatever the reason, I really liked Arabian Nights. Pasolini has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but this isn’t one of them; I think it should be. There’s a Blu-ray collection of six films by Pasolini available from the BFI, only two of which I’ve seen, Arabian Nights and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  I’m sorely tempted by it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 872