I have been bingeing on boxed sets recently, and not really ones I can in any way recommend. I worked my way through all five seasons of The Professionals, and it was all a bit crap but sort of fun. Then I watched three seasons of Hamish Macbeth, and I have no fucking idea what that was about. Ostensibly a murder-mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands, it was as daft as those fringe murder-mystery series the US churns out by the metre, but with added chocolate-box Scotland. Entertaining enough, but also baffling. I tried watching The Diplomat, an Australian miniseries set in the UK but gave up after ten minutes when it was clear the makers hadn’t bothered to research how the police operate in the UK. I watched one episode of Jack Taylor, a grizzled private eye in Galway, but when the second episode opened with him framed for murder in the most obvious framed-for-murder plot twist on the planet, I decided to give it a miss as I have a low threshold for clichés.
Happily, there are feature films. And I should watch more of them, instead of shit TV series.
War Requiem, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). I think it’s pretty obvious I have a somewhat eclectic taste in films, so it’s hardly a surprise I consider Jarman among the ten best directors the UK has produced. I find myself conflicted about War Requiem, chiefly because it’s a staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, using the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, and the War Requiem features nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve admired for many years. Interestingly, War Requiem was performed for the consecration of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, and I attended Coventry University, whose campus is right next to the cathedral, so I know the building well. Which reminds me – and this is an entirely true story – of a winter night in the early 1990s when I was returning home after some drinks in town and I passed between the new cathedral and the old one (which is little more than a roofless shell). As I walked past the entrance to the old cathedral, I glanced inside it… and saw a naked woman with long blonde hair sitting on a white horse. Lady Godiva, of course, lived hundreds of years ago. Happily, this was no ghost – as I walked on, lights and a camera crew came into view. I never learnt what was being filmed that night, but glancing into the old Coventry Cathedral and seeing Lady Godiva on her horse is not something you forget. But, War Requiem, which opens with Laurence Olivier in a wheelchair in the garden of a sanatorium, but is mostly black box theatre. The music is not to my taste – I’m into death metal not a “mass for the dead” – and while Owen’s poems lend themselves really well to being performed, I’m still more of a reader than a listener. In other words, I like the idea of Jarman’s War Requiem more than I liked the experience of watching it.
Where is the Friend’s House?, Abbas Kiarostami (1987, Iran). Kiarostami is an easy director to admire, even if his individual works are not all that likable. Where is the Friend’s House? is one of his Koker trilogy, along with And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, all set in and around the village of Koker in northern Iran. A young boy realises he has accidentally taken his school friend’s notebook home, and his friend will be punished if he fails to complete his homework. After an abortive attempt to find his friend’s house, the boy ends up doing the homework himself, and earns his friend a commendation from the teacher. If you’ve seen a Kiarostami film before, you’ll know what to expect. It’s not one of his best – its story is too thin for a feature-length movie – and it’s hard to compare it to other, better, films by Kiarostami. On the other hand, if it didn’t exist there would be no blu-ray box set from Criterion called The Koker Trilogy, which I believe is the first appearance of this film and And Life Goes On on disc. So there’s that.
Venus in Furs, Massimo Dallamano (1969, Italy). Amazon Prime continues to recommend Shameless releases to me, and since I like some giallo, I continue to add them to my watch list. True, giallo is quite a wide genre, although mostly horror or erotic horror, and I tend to lump poliziotteschi films in with it. And, to be honest, it’s Shameless’s releases of Italian sf movies I like best, such as Footprints on the Moon or The Tenth Victim, and I’m not sure they really qualify as giallo. So perhaps I’m misusing, if not abusing, the term. Venus in Furs is straight up late-sixties erotic drama, and if it had a plot I failed to find it. It all seems over-egged, and it’s not hard to believe it’s based on a novel published in 1870 and written by the man whose name gave us the word “masochism”.
Atragon, Ishiro Honda (1963, Japan). We all know Honda’s work, and if not we can at least imagine it. He’s best-known for the original Godzilla movie, but he had a long career directing films that were, well, pretty much the same as Godzilla. Some were more overtly science-fictional than others, but they all featured monsters portrayed by men, and women, in rubber suits. Atragon refers to a submarine – that can fly and tunnel into the earth – invented and built by a submarine captain who disappeared in the last year of WWII. As is revealed when the Empress of the lost continent of Mu, which now exists at the bottom of the ocean, tries to abduct the captain’s daughter from Tokyo. It’s all complete bobbins and makes not the slightest jot of sense, but the model work is pretty cool and the film’s commentary on Japan’s war record is interesting and surprisingly honest (UK and USA, take note). I note that Honda’s film are undergoing a minor revival, with Eureka about to release several of them as limited edition Blu-rays. I am not complaining. They are good stuff.
Sputnik, Egor Abramenko (2020, Russia). I don’t understand why this movie wasn’t named Soyuz. A cosmonaut returns to Earth – aboard a Soyuz – with an unwelcome passenger, an alien parasite. Sputnik means “fellow traveller”, which is apt, but soyuz means “union” and that meaning plays to the plot, too. And, well, the film opens in an actual Soyuz spacecraft. Anyway, a cosmonaut is brought back to earth with an alien parasite and a psychiatrist is brought in to study him. She learns the military have already learnt quite a bit about the parasite, although she refuses to accept the price they paid. She decides to rescue the cosmonaut and rid him of his alien “fellow traveller”. In other words, what we have here is Alien set in 1980s USSR. Expect many reviews to refer to it as “Alienski”. It’s a good-looking film, but it’s covering ground that has been done better – and not just by Alien. It all feels a bit tired and predictable, despite its Soviet paint job. Meh.
Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Ishiro Honda ((1965, Japan). This was the second of three Japanese-American collaborations, all three of which were directed by Honda. It’s more overtly science-fictional than the one mentioned above, but is still very much a monster movie. A joint US-Japan mission to a mysterious “dark planet” near Jupiter (sigh) encounters an advanced civilisation, the Xiliens, currently under attack by “Monster Zero”. Earth offers the use of Godzilla and Rodan to defeat Monster Zero, but the Xiliens kidnap those monsters and then use them to demand the earth submit to their rule. I think this is the most typically Honda movie I have seen – it has everything. Like most of his movies, the story trundles along, requiring no more than normal levels of suspension of disbelief… and then falls of a cliff. That, I suppose, is part of their charm. Nonetheless, I would be happy to watch high-quality restored editions of his films.
Bill & Ted Face the Music, Dean Parisot (2020, USA). There is likely no one who said what the world really needed in these troubled times was a third Bill and Ted film thirty years after the last one. But it got one. And, though it pains me to say it, I actually enjoyed it. Another review pointed out that the characters of Bill and Ted were nice and sincere, and that we have few heroes like that in the twenty-first century. Leaving aside the fact we had few like that in the twentieth century, it is still true. Bill and Ted, even in this film, are just gosh-darned likeable. They’re dim, but they’re well-meaning. And the way they explore their own future – including not-so-nice Bills and Teds – is cleverly done. A lot has been made of their daughters, but they only get something like a third of the screen-time, which – unpopular opinion – is just as well as they come across as a pair of young female actors doing impressions of Bill and Ted. The climax of the film sees the daughters put together a band of historically important musicians, and playing a song to save all space and time. The choices for “historically important musicians” are… interesting. Jimi Hendrix. Yup, totally agree. A young Louis Armstrong. Why young? Why not later, when he was at the height of his creativity? Mozart. Right, everybody’s choice for “musical genius” – totally lazy pick. Ling Lun. Who is the legendary founder of music in China (around 300 BCE). Good that the film makes Ling Lun female. Bad that they made her just a flautist. The final member of the group is a cave woman who likes banging things and so is the best drummer ever. I mean, let’s not even go there. Good that the drummer is female, bad that it ignores the entire fucking history of playing drums. Having said that, Bill & Ted Face the Music ends with a really shit song being performed to save the universe. There’s a lot to like in the film – basically, the characters of Bill and Ted, the careful plotting, its diversity – but there’s a lot of minor stuff here that gets a pass because it does right on some of the big stuff. It’s not that good a film, but it’s entertaining and it’s a surprisingly inoffensive sequel to the first two films.
The Kennel Murder Case, Michael Curtiz (1933, USA). William Powell played urbane sleuth Philo Vance in four films for Paramount, between 1929 and 1933, but he was one of nine actors who played the role over fifteen movies, the last of which, Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, was released in 1947. Vance seems to have been an odd character – sort of a New York version of an English aristocrat sleuth, and coded as gay. The books were best-sellers, but despised by Raymond Chandler. I might try reading one some day. Anyway, a rich capitalist and all-round nasty piece of work is found dead in his locked bedroom, seemingly of suicide. But he seems to have bashed himself across the head with a poker, and then knifed himself in the back, before shooting himself in the temple some time after he had actually died. And then man’s brother turns up dead in the hall closet. Vance solves the “how” pretty quickly – the door was locked from outside using some string and a bent pin – but everyone except those investigating the crime have a motive for seeing the man dead. So Vance plays a trick and forces the murderer to reveal themselves. The Kennel Murder Case is apparently considered the best of the Philo Vance films, which doesn’t say much for the others. I thought the Thin Man movies better, but if any more of the Vance ones pop up on Amazon Prime I’ll happily watch them.
Bleeding Steel, Leo Zhang (2017, China). I think I’ve seen around thirty of Jackie Chan’s films and this is easily the worst one I’ve watched. It’s one of those trans-Pacific near-future sf movies, like The Meg, with a Chinese and Australian cast, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics or plausibility. Jackie Chan plays an officer of the “United Nations Special Forces” who is asked to take a rogue scientist into custody, even though his young daughter, who is dying of leukaemia, has just taken a turn for the worse. While Chan battles some cyborg and his over-equipped troops, Chan’s daughter dies. But no! She doesn’t. The rogue scientist implants a mechanical heart and “bio-engineered blood” into her, and saves her life. Thirteen years later, the daughter, believing herself to be an orphan, is a student in Australia, and Chan has been keeping a surreptitious eye on her. But the murder of an author whose novels bear an uncanny resemblance to the life of Chan’s daughter kicks off a series of action sequences in which Chan fights off assorted baddies – including one fight scene on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Chan is his usual likeable self, and most of the fight scenes are creatively choreographed, but from start to finish this is piss-poor near-future sf and in a genre which takes care over its fight choreography not even a Jackie Chan film can stand out, other than by putting him front and centre. And Bleeding Steel – and what exactly does that title fucking mean? – does that, but it’s not enough. This is a bad film but, even more shamefully, it is a bad Jackie Chan film.
This is the last post of movies I watched in the UK, which is why it’s only four films instead of the usual six.
Ten, Abbas Kiarostami (2002, Iran). To anyone who has never seen an Iranian film, I say go out and watch one. Now. Iran has one of the best cinematic traditions on the planet, and a number of excellent directors. Not just Kiarostami, but also Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Asghar Fahadi, Jafar Panahi, Majid, Majidi, Babak Payami, Samira Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi… But if you were going to watch an Iranian film for the first time, I wouldn’t, er, recommend Ten. It’s good. And a good example of Iranian cinematic narrative techniques – especially Kiarostami’s. But it’s also nothing like Western cinema, and some might find that too much of a hurdle. The film is structured around ten scenes which take place in a car, mostly with the camera focused on the person in the front passenger seat. Who is in conversation with the driver, a woman. The passengers include her son, her sister, and various people to whom she is giving lifts. Sometimes the camera focuses on her. The conversations gradually reveal the driver’s life – such as the fact she is divorcing her husband. If I were to suggest a Kiarostami film to someone who had never seen one before, I’d probably pick Close-Up or Through the Olive Trees, or perhaps, because it’s my favourite of his, The Wind Will Carry Us (but be prepared to struggle finding his films in the UK as only some have been released on sell-through or rental). Kiarostami certainly had a singular vision, even among Iranian directors, and I do find faux-documentary narrative films of the sort he often made very appealing. However, the confined nature of Ten means a lot rests on the words and the actors, and I prefer movies that are, well, cinematic, ie, there’s very much a visual narrative to the story. Ten, like black box theatre, more or less dispenses with that. It is, as I said earlier, a good film, and perhaps quite emblematic of Kiarostami’s oeuvre, but it’s not what I’d call entry-level.
Sherman’s March*, Ross McElwee (1986, USA). So McElwee wanted to make about General Sherman’s march through George and North and South Carolina during the American Civil War, and the impact his army had on the country through which it passed. But McElwee was originally from that area, and when he turns up with his camera, relatives and old friends are more concerned with match-making because his last relationship has just ended. So the documentary makes a half-hearted attempt to discuss the effects of Sherman’s scorched earth policy, but gets quickly, and often, derailed by McElwee’s pursuit of various women, which usually fail, for a variety of reasons. And then McElwee moves onto the next spot on Sherman’s route. And it sort of happens all over again. Surprisingly, it proved quite interesting viewing, perhaps because it’s a documentary. McElwee does also tackle his subject, and on occasion ties it into his own childhood in the area. I hadn’t expected to enjoy Sherman’s March, and some of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list have indeed been chores to watch, but I really did like this one. Recommended.
The Housemaid, Si Si (2014, China). This is available on Amazon Prime in the UK, although not apparently in Sweden – and that seems to apply to a whole bunch of Chinese films that had been dumped on Amazon Prime. Which is a shame. Not, I hasten to add, that The Housemaid, AKA Desire Nanny or Sex Babysitter, is the soft porn the poster suggests. It is in fact not unlike Secretary. Which is, I guess, er, borderline. Anyway, a young woman moves to the big city but has trouble finding work She signs up with a domestic agency, and her first job is to clean the house of a minor gangster. He takes a shine to her, and repeatedly asks the agency to send her. At which point, he starts ordering her to wear particular outfits when cleaning house. And it all snowballs from there. A second narrative covers the gangster’s son and his girlfriend, and their plan to steal money his father. The three parts of the film – social drama, sexual shenanigans with the gangster, and the plans of the gangster’s son – don’t sit together especially well, particularly those first two, where you have something that resembles a film by a Sixth Generation director which turns into some sort of light porn Youtube video. Ah well.
Sleeping Dogs*, Stephen Donaldson (1977, New Zealand). Another film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but, surprisingly, as indicated above, it’s not a US film. New Zealand cinema is not especially well-known, although considerably better-known after Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, there have been a number of films from the country which have international reputation, and Sleeping Dogs must be one of them – although, to be honest, I’d not heard of it before deciding to work my way through the list… Sam Neill, sporting a hairstyle that looks uncannily like a bad wig, is thrown out by his wife and finds his way to the coast, where he rents an abandoned house on a small island. Meanwhile, New Zealand is descending into chaos after the 1973 oil crisis leads to a general strike, civil unrest, the imposition of ever more draconian laws and the formation of a “special police”. Leavers who want a no deal Brexit should take note. A squad of special police turn up one day, bundle Neill into a boat and cart him off to headquarters. He’s thrown into a cellar and left, with no explanation. Some days later, a senior officer, whom Neill knew from school, tells him that a cache of arms, for use by insurgents, had been on found on the island where Neill was living alone. He’s offered the choice of confessing to be a member of the resistance and deportation, or maintaining his innocence, which will lead to his execution. His choice is framed as “upholding democracy or supporting the resistance”, apparently without irony – no democratic society arrests and executes people without due process of law. Neill manages to escape police custody, and goes on the run. He is helped by the resistance, and ends up a handyman at a rural motel. Which is then taken over by a mixed squad of special police and US Army soldiers, led by Warren Oates. The man for whom Neill’s wife left him then appears and proves to be a member of the resistance. He wants Neill to trigger a trap to kill Oates’s men… The film is based on a novel called Smith’s Dream by CK Stead, and it’s tempting to suspect that dream was merely the desire to be left alone. Throughout the film, Neill refuses to choose sides, but is repeatedly dragged into the resistance’s plots. As a result he becomes something a folk hero, although at second-hand. Plot aside, Sleeping Dogs was clearly made with a small budget – despite the appearance of three Royal New Zealand Air Force helicopters and jet fighters – and the acting is pretty bad, even by Neill. But the camera does make good use of the famous New Zealand scenery. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – as a New Zealand film. Its story might well be more relevant now than it was in 1977, and, while the film has dated, it’s so obviously a seventies film it comes across pretty much as an historical document. But it still looks noticeably cheap in the more dramatic scenes, and that does weaken it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939
I have seen other films by all the directors in the post, except for the last. Some, of course, more than others – Lang is my 8th most-watched director, with 25 movies. (Alfred Hitchcock, unsurprisingly, occupies the top spot.)
House by the River, Fritz Lang (1950, USA) Unsuccessful author Louis Hayward is left on his own with attractive maid Dorothy Patrick. Enraged by his latest rejection, and drunk, he sexually assaults Patrick, and strangles her when she resists. His brother, Lee Bowman, then turns up, and Hayward persuades him to help him dispose of the body – in the river by, er, the house. Hayward then puts it about that Patrick has run away with clothing and jewellery belonging to Hayward’s wife. But then Bowman learns that the meal sack in which they hid the body had his name on it. And the body has re-appeared. Hayward claims Bowman was the murderer. And it looks like he might go down for it. Lang made some classic noir films during the 1940s and 1950s, but this isn’t generally reckoned one of them. It apparently flopped on its release, but time has been kind to it: the starkly-lit studio sets, indoors and outdoors, look really quite effective, and if the script and acting is perhaps a bit overwrought there are some really effective scenes. The scene where Hayward tries to recover Patrick’s body from the river is especially good. Despite that, it’s probably one for fans – of Lang or noir.
Space Amoeba, Ishiro Honda (1970, Japan). The original Japanese title of this film translates as “Gezora, Ganimes, and Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas”, which, er, pretty much describes the entire plot. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as readily as Space Amoeba, or the film’s US title, Yog-Monster from Space (although what a “yog-monster” is, is anybody’s guess). Anyway, space probe on its way to Jupiter encounters a strange energy alien, which takes over the probe and sends it back to Earth. It crashes in the Pacific, and the alien takes over the body of a cuttlefish and grows it to giant-size. Meanwhile, a group of photographers and developers have travelled to Selgio Island to explore the sight of a future resort. The giant cuttlefish attacks them, and when they defeat it, the alien turns into a giant stone crab, and then a giant mata mata. So, lots of monster fights. And, er, that’s about it. There are a few character arcs and stuff, but let’s not get carried away – kaiju films are all about the monsters, after all. Strangely, the lead characters seemed to have been dubbed by Australian actors.
Ali and Nino, Asif Kapadia (2016, UK). I learnt of this story watching a documentary about Baku (see here), but at the time thought it was only a 1937 novel. But it was apparently adapted two years ago by a British director, with a Palestinian playing the Azerbaijani and a Spaniard playing the Georgian. Oh well. Casting aside, the film makes a good fist of the story and even manages to present Baku as it was in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Both Ali and Nino are from well-off families, aristocracy if not minor royalty. A rival for Nino’s affections kidnaps her, but Ali rescues her. But the rival dies during the rescue, so Ali has to hide out in the hills. Meanwhile, WWI breaks out. A friend re-unites the two and they marry in the hills. The Russian Revolution takes place. Post-WWI, Azerbaijan becomes independent. The couple return to Baku and Ali is made a government minister. But then the Russians invade and Azerbaijan becomes a vassal state. Ali and Nino flee. Ali and Nino is all a bit, well, Dr Zhivago, with a bit of Lawrence of Arabia mixed in. It’s clear where Kapadia’s inspirations lay – and it’s no bad thing, as those are both excellent films. The two leads are, perhaps, a little bland, although Mandy Patinkin, one of only two faces I recognised in the cast, makes a good Grand Duke Kipiani, Nino’s father. Kapadia at least does a better job of making his locations look like Baku of the 1930s than Lean did making Spain look like Russia (athough both are good-looking films). Kapadia is probably better-known for documentaries made from found footage, but if this, his feature film, is any indication he has a good career ahead of him in that area too.
Through the Olive Trees*, Abbas Kiarostami (194, Iran). This is probably Kiarostami’s most highly-regarded film and yet, despite the fact pretty much his entire oeuvre is available on DVD, this one film isn’t. Every other film he made: available on DVD, probably soon to appear on Blu-ray. Through the Olive Trees: nope. I can only hope that when that long outstanding Kiarostami collection appears on Blu-ray, it includes this. Through the Olive Trees is about a director making a film in a village in Iran that recently suffered a bad earthquake. I can’t think of another film director whose movies were so consistently meta – whether it was the pull back to the crew at the end of Taste of Cherry, or the plot of Close-Up (see here), which consists of a man pretending to be rival director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In Through the Olive Trees, two of the locals the director has cast have a bad relationship: he asked for her hand in marriage but was rejected by her mother. Acting in the film has brought the two together, and while he still burns a torch for her and is incensed by his rejection, she doesn’t seem especially concerned and is happy to accept her mother’s decision. But the two start to confuse the parts they’re playing and their real lives – I believe most of the cast were amateurs from the area where the film was made, and many of the events in the film happened in real life. In and around this, the director has to cope with making a film far from Tehran, with only local support, living in tents and using a much-reduced crew. This hasn’t overtaken Where the Wind Will Carry Us as my favourite Kiarostami, and I think I like Close-up slightly more as well, but it’s certainly in the top five. Excellent stuff.
The Warrior and the Wolf, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2009, China). I watched this twice before returning it to Cinema Paradiso and I’m still not sure sure what it’s about. I think I know what it thinks it’s about, but that’s not the same as what appears on the screen. It receive some stick because it’s a Chinese historical film starring a Japanese man and a Hawaiian woman in the lead roles – cf Zhang Yimou for casting Matt Damon in The Great Wall. The Warrior and the Wolf opens with on-screen text explaining that General Zhang guards the northern border, but during the winter months his army returns home. When Zhang is captured by barbarians, a new recruit, Lu, frees him. Zhang leaves Lu in charge and heads home. Winter arrives and Lu leads the garrison home, but they end up trapped in a village by a snowstorm. Lu takes a village woman for himself, She tells him that sex with outsiders turns the villagers into wolves. When the soldiers leave, they are attacked by wolves. This is definitely a film that’s all about the visuals, not to mention the sex scenes between Lu and the village woman. Occasional screen-fulls of narrative text, however, fail to bed the story into the visuals, so the end result is a film that looks gorgeous but is as dull as dishwater. I’ve now seen three films by Tian, and he definitely seems stronger on cinematography than narrative. The Horse Thief (see here) had the most interesting setting, but The Warrior and the Wolf doesn’t seem all that much different to the current crop of wu xia and historical epic films flooding out of China.
A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio (2017, Chile) This is one of those films where the plot is easy to describe. That, however, is the only thing that’s “easy” about it. A man in a relationship with a transgender woman, Marina, has a seizure one night. She manages to get him to the hospital, although not without him falling downstairs at one point. Due to the injuries sustained from the fall, the police are called. The man dies of an aneurysm. The police seemed happy Marina was not responsible for the death, but they are afraid she might have been a victim herself in the relationship. So while trying to manage her grief, she’s having to deal with an officious police officer intent on digging into her private life. Then her late lover’s transphobic ex-wife turns up. And she wants everything back. Like the car. The son moves into the flat and throws Marina out. He even keeps the dog, which was given to Marina. And the family refuses to allow her to mourn her lover’s death – they ban her from the funeral, and the son and his mates physically assault her when she turns up. The one thing I don’t understand is why the ex-wife has such powers. Her relationship with the deceased ended when she divorced him. It’s implied Marina’s relationship was relatively recent, but even so she lived with him, they were a couple. A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s certainly a good film. Its star, Daniela Vega, is excellent in the title role. But it’s also a film that makes you angry with the injustices heaped on its title character. Obviously, they’re making a point – and the success of the movie shows the point is getting across to some people. But the fact it has to be made in the first place… and the treatment meted out by transphobes… It’s disgusting, makes you ashamed to be human. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 925
A wider spread of films this week – in terms of years (five decades) and countries of origin (five nations). Only one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however. And another film that is really bad and I’ve no idea why I bothered buying it or watching it. Eh.
Deadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do, Ralph Thomas (1967/1969, UK). There must have been something in the water back in the 1960s, with all the debonair spy movies that appeared – not just the early 007s, but Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Maroc 7, Our Man in Marrakesh and… these two starring Bulldog Drummond. Who, er, isn’t strictly speaking a spy. And he originally appeared in the 1930s. He’s some sort of man-about-town who acts as a troubleshooter for an uncle in insurance. Or something. But he does do battle with a megalomaniac. And there are plenty of daft gadgets and nubile women in bikinis. Deadlier Than The Male opens with Elke Sommer poisoning an oil baron aboard his private jet, and then parachuting to safety as the plane explodes behind her. It transpires she was paid to do this by a UK oil company, but the oil company decides not to pay her fee – at least not until one of the directors is killed. But now there’s another person standing in the way of the oil company’s expansion, this time the ruler of a small Arab sheikhdom, who Drummond just happened to go to school with. So Drummond heads off to visit his chum on the Italian Riviera, partly to protect the sheikh and partly to discover who is Sommer’s boss. The film ends with a shoot-out on a giant mechanical cheesboard. Bonkers. Some Girls Do is more of the same. This time it’s a UK project to build the world’s first supersonic airliner (hey, we did that for real!), but the project is being sabotaged. It turns out the saboteurs are nubile young women with “robot brains”. Or something. The science is complete nonsense. The villain, for example, uses a subsonic ray to take control of the supersonic airliner. Good luck with that. “Supersonic” means “faster than sound”. Your ray will never catch up with the plane. Even for its subgenre, this is pretty brainless entertainment, without either the silly humour of Matt Helm and Derek Flint, the po-facedness of Bond, or the colourful locations of Maroc 7 and Our Man in Marrakesh.
Starship Apocalypse, Neil Johnson (2014, USA). This is the sequel to Starship Rising, a film that was so bad I, er, bought the sequel. Johnson specialises in low-budget genre films, which I guess sort of makes him the self-published Kindle genre writer of the movie world. The set dressing in the two films by him I’ve now watched is cheap and nasty, the acting is poor, the dialogue terrible, and the stories derivative. This one has a disfigured, allegedly immortal emperor, and a small group – the entire cast of the film probably numbers less than a dozen – of rebels, who have this fantastic starship, or something. The only way to watch this film is pissed, which does sort of make figuring out what’s going on a bit difficult. I’ll probably have to watch both films again, but I’m not sure I want to…
American Dreams (lost and found), James Benning (1984, USA). It probably comes as no surprise that Benning has become one of my favourite directors. He hasn’t knocked Sokurov off the top spot – their oeuvres are almost impossible to compare, but Sokurov has at least made several narrative films (or rather, not documentaries) – but I’d definitely put Benning in the top five. And it’s because of films like American Dreams (lost and found). I can see why Benning’s Deseret made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as it’s probably the most accessible of his films (that I’ve seen to date) – and even then it comprises static shots of scenery in Utah, countryside and towns, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1851 to 1995. American Dreams (lost and found) uses a much more interesting technique to tell its story. In fact, it uses three techniques. The images are of baseball cards and ephemera about Hank Aaron (apparently a great baseball star, although his fame is lost on me as I’ve never followed the sport). The soundtrack consists of a variety of spoken word excerpts, such Martin Luther King’s famous speech, or the first words spoken on the Moon, all iconographic moments in US recent history, alternating with popular music from the 1950s through to the very early 1970s. As well as both of these, a line of handwritten text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. This last is from the diary of a man who plans to murder Richard Nixon, and it reads exactly like the sort of thing written by someone who would plan such a thing – weird spelling mistakes, completely deluded, an oddly prurient but obscene fascination with women… As the film progresses, the story told by the diary deepens, until it is eventually revealed as the real diary of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to kill US presidental candidate George Wallace in 1972. Fascinating stuff.
Close-Up*, Abbas Kiarostami (1990, Iran). I believe this is the film which brought Kiarostami to western critics’ notice, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a documentary in which the people involved re-enact the events of the film’s topic, intercut with footage of the actual court case which results. A man meets a woman in a bus and tells her he is the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The man visits the woman and her family several times, and tries to raise cash from them for his next film. A journalist meets the imposter, realises he is not Makhmalbaf, and the police are called in to arrest him. Kiarostami interviews the journalist, the imposter and the family, and also films them re-enacting the events which led to the arrest. After the court case, the real Makhmalbaf turns up and gives the imposter a lift on his motorbike to the family’s home so he can apologise for trying to con money out of them. It all adds up to a very clever film, which feels partly like a documentary and partly like fiction, and which plays games with the viewer compact, to the extent it’s not clear where the lines blur. Kiarostami is one of the most important directors currently making films, and this film gives ample reason why.
The Niklashausen Journey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). I have a soft spot for films which are little more than actors declaiming political arguments instead of dialogue in a story, such as Miklós Jancsó’s The Confrontation… And now this one. The story is based on a true story from the fifteenth century, about a shepherd who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a vision and promptly tried to start an uprising against the church and landowners. It didn’t succeed. Fassbinder uses a mix of contemporary and historical costumes, and has his actors discuss revolutions and historical forces while notionally acting out the life of the shepherd. It works surprisingly well. Most of the scenes are static, with the cast either standing or sitting still while they speak. And yes, I ended up buying the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection 69-72, Volume 1, so now I have both sets – and they’re worth it even if not every film in them is entirely successful.
Rabid, David Cronenberg (1977, Canada). A charity shop find. Sadly, it was the only early Croneneberg they had. It is, unsurprisingly, distinctively one of his. A young couple are involved in a motorbike accident. She is badly burned, but fortunately the accident took place near a famous plastic surgery clinic. The head of the clinic employs an experimental method to graft skin over the burned area, and as a result the young woman, er, grows an orifice in her armpit, yes really, which has a stinger inside, yes really. She uses this to feed. Her victims cannot remember afterwards what happened, and then some time later they turn into zombies. Whoever the zombies bite, also becomes a zombie. It turns into an epidemic, its cause completely flummoxing the Canadian authorities. It’s a bit too daft a premise to shock as horror, although it works quite well as a completely bonkers thriller. Porn actress Marilyn Chambers plays the young woman, in her first straight acting role. Not a bad film, although it’s clear not much money was thrown at it.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 650
I hate f**tball, so I’ve watched a whole bunch of films recently – because there’s bugger-all but f**tball on telly. Some of you might have spotted this. I can’t complain too much, however, because it has led to me making a substantial dent in my To Be Watched pile. Yes, I have a TBW pile as well… although it is orders of magnitude smaller than the TBR pile. Having said that, an additional three DVDs join it each week from Lovefilm. Anyway, I’ve been watching two films a night since the f**tball began, and some of them have been very good indeed…
Blow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) David Hemmings – a very young David Hemmings – is a hip and trendy fashion photographer in swinging London – one of the models who poses for him is Veruschka, for instance. Hemmings has a pet project, a book of his non-fashion photographs, and while out looking to buy a junk shop he finds a small park whose peacefulness appeals to him. He takes some photos… including of a couple trysting. The woman – a very young Vanessa Redgrave – is upset at being photographed, but Hemmings won’t hand over his film. Later, he learns why. The man was about to be murdered. Beautifully-shot, tense, and yet typically Antonionian. There’s a good reason why it’s a classic film.
Cracks, Jordan Scott (2009, UK) You know Dead Poets Society? And Mona Lisa Smile? This is more of the same, the only difference being Eva Green plays the inspirational teacher, it’s set in the 1930s, at a girls’ boarding-school, the special snowflakes are members of a diving team, and it’s about the daughter of Spanish royalty who joins the school and the team… and upsets its delicate balance. Green, as usual, seems a little unhinged, the direction and photography are polished (Jordan Scott is Ridley Scott’s daughter), and it all hangs together… but it feels a bit like a Sebastian Faulks novel: well-crafted, nice sense of time and place, but all a bit bland and unmemorable.
Party Girl, Nicholas Ray (1958, USA) The title refers to Cyd Charisse, who plays a chorus girl at a nightclub in 1930s Chicago, but the film is really about Robert Taylor, who plays an accomplished lawyer all the gangsters use when they get into scrapes. He’s still married, but she agrees to be his mistress – but later, when he decides he’s had enough of representing scumbag gangsters, Capone-like Lee J Cobb threatens Charisse in order to make Taylor play ball. There’s little that’s original in the film, though it’s well-shot – as you’d expect from Ray – and Charisse puts on a couple of entertaining routines (though she never seems to quite light up the screen). Cobb just munches his way through the scenery. Apparently, Party Girl is now a cult film, though I can’t quite see it myself.
Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978, Italy) This is the film that contains the immortal line, “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” And the rest of it is pretty dumb too. How to describe how bad this film is? Caroline Munro, in what is pretty much a bikini, plays the best pilot in the galaxy; her sidekick is the best navigator in the galaxy; they are smugglers. But they’re caught by the Imperial authorities, who want them to track down the emperor’s son, who has crash-landed on a world controlled by the evil Count Zarth Arn. First they are arrested and then sent to prison, but they escape. Munro is teamed with a crap but chatty police robot, and together they find the emperor’s son – played by David Hasselhof – and… The production design owes more to Barbarella than Star Wars, but with none of the appeal of either. The plot makes no sense. Hasselhof actually out-acts everyone else in the film – and that includes Christopher Plummer, who plays the emperor. This is a film that is so bad, it goes through bad, out the other side into good, and then through that… into cult classic. Watch it at your peril.
The McConnell Story, Gordon Douglas (1955, USA) The biopic of a Korean war ace who became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. It’s not the best example of its type. Alan Ladd in the title role never seems quite driven enough, although the aerial photography is pretty cool. McConnell starts out as an army medic, persuades his superior officers to send him to flight school, but only makes it as a navigator – which is what he does throughout WWII. After the war, he’s invited into the newly-formed USAF to train pilots on jets. He ends up in Korea, and becomes the first US jet air ace. Afterwards, he’s assigned to Edwards AFB, where he flight-tests a new version of the North American F-86 Sabre. Apparently, McConnell was killed in an aeroplane crash before the film premiered, so they had to reshoot the ending. Toward the Unknown and Strategic Air Command are much better films of this type.
Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie, Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) Or War of the Worlds – The Next Century. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this film, but it was enough to prompt me to buy a Piotr Szulkin DVD box set… and it’s proven an excellent purchase. I mentioned Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom from the same boxed set in an earlier post (see here), and this film is just as bleak and black as that one – if not more so. Iron Idem is a TV broadcaster, but his boss wants him to discuss only material approved by the conquering Martians. Reluctantly, he agrees. But then the Martians trash his apartment and take away his wife – because, the Martians’ goons tell him, they want him to love the Martians. Eventually, they pile one too many indignities on him and he cracks. At a charity concert, he appears on-stage and rants at the audience, telling them to rise up against the invaders. But his speech is never broadcast – and later, after the Martians have left, without its soundtrack the footage is used as evidence he was a collaborator. It’s not difficult to see who or what Szulkin is targetting, and he gives it the blackest possible spin. There’s a grimy and desolate realness to Szulkin’s films. I’m beginning to think he’s better than Żuławski…
The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler (1946, USA) Three men return to their home town of Boone City after fighting abroad in WWII. One was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but finished the war a captain is the USAAF. Another was a wealthy banker, but is now an Army sergeant. The third was the boy next-door, who fought at the Battle of Midway aboard a carrier, and lost both his arms below the elbow when his ship was sunk. They do not get the heroes’ welcome they expect. The captain learns the woman he married days before being sent to fight is now a night-club singer and used to a life-style he can’t provide – because the only job he is qualified for is the one he held before joining the Army: soda fountain jerk. The banker returns to his bank, only to learn his bosses put the bank’s earnings above the needs of its customers… which seems to him to be against all he fought for. The sailor meanwhile is afraid his childhood sweetheart will reject him because he is disabled. It all makes for a pretty damning indictment of the US public’s response to the war. Don’t be fooled by the cheery/romantic DVD cover art. Incidentally, Harold Russell, who plays the sailor, is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role – one as Best Supporting Actor and one awarded for being an inspiration to disabled people.
Like Someone in Love, Abbas Kiarostami (2013, France) There’s something about Kiarostami’s elliptical approach to story-telling I find very interesting. It makes him one of the more interesting directors currently making films. It’s almost perversely anti-Hollywood… which is another reason why his films appeal. Like Someone in Love is not dissimilar to Kiarostami’s other films in this regard, even though it’s set in Japan, with a Japanese cast and Japanese dialogue. A young student pays for her tuition by working nights as a call girl. One night, she visits the apartment of an old professor, but he would sooner cook her dinner and she’s so tired she falls asleep. The next day, he drives her to college, where he meets her boyfriend – who mistakes him for her grandfather. The old man then drives the pair of them – the boyfriend to the garage where he works, the young woman to a book shop. Kiarostami has set films chiefly inside moving vehicles before – but the ending to this film feels more Haneke than it does Kiarostami. Speaking of which, I’m waiting for someone to do a boxed set of all Kiarostami’s films, just as they have for Haneke…
My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Andrzej Żuławski (1989, France) Żuławski, unlike Szulkin, is plain bonkers – and this film is a perfect illustration of why. Superficially, it seems like a fairly typical amour fou romance, something the French do well, and often, with Sophie Marceau as the object of Jacques Dutronc’s obsession. (Marceau was in a relationship with Żuławski at the time.) But Dutronc’s character has a brain disease and is losing his memory, so he spends all the time obsessively speaking strings of words in order not to forget them. And Marceau is a clairvoyant in a high-end carnival act, in which she is hypnotised, tells members of the audience things they’d rather not hear, and then does a striptease. The two hook up, spend a lot of time having sex, while the rest of the cast wander in and out of the story, mostly uttering gnomic dialogue but occasionally advancing the plot. I really liked the other films by Żuławski I’ve so far seen, but this one was disappointing – perhaps because despite the characteristic Żuławski bonkerosity (er, no pun intended), it felt too generic…
Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton (1923, USA) There’s a list of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die and while there’s a lot on it that plainly doesn’t belong there – Argo? WTF? – I’ve found it a reasonably good source for titles of older classic movies I’d not seen. I’d have preferred it if the list wasn’t full of spelling mistakes and mangled titles, however – it does suggest not that much thought was put into it. Anyway, I know of Buster Keaton, of course; and I’ve probably seen one or two of his films years and years ago. But this one was new to me and… It was good, it made me laugh. The stunts were clever, the story – a pastiche of the Hatfield-McCoy feud – well-played, and the train ride was near-genius. Worth seeing.
O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec Cywilizacji, Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland) Another one from the Szulkin box set, and it’s just as grim as the other two. Nuclear war has done for the world, all but one thousand people who managed to reach safety in an underground shelter beneath a protective dome. They were told that an Ark would arrive soon to rescue them, and despite the authorities repeatedly telling them there is no Ark, they still believe it. The film’s protagonist is relatively high up in the power structure – he certainly knows there’s no Ark coming – and he’s looking for a way out with his girlfriend. And sooner rather than later, as he knows the dome is about to fail. He has some silverware stashed away and he trades these for food – the utensils can be stamped into tags, which are used as currency in the shelter. Eventually, he learns of a hangar, and a plane stored in it. But when he tracks it down – and this is one of the best scenes in the film – he discovers that the richest man in the shelter has been cannibalising the aircraft’s aluminium fuselage to make currency. The ending is perhaps not the most original ever, given the set-up, but it’s cleverly framed. Good stuff.
We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.
BOOKS 1Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.
2Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.
3The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.
4Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.
5Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.
Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.
Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.
FILMS 1Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.
2Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.
3Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.
4Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.
5The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.
Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.
And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.
ALBUMS 1Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.
2Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.
3From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.
4The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.
5Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.
Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.
It’s that time of year again when I go back through my spreadsheets of books read, films seen and albums bought, and try to decide which are the best five of each. And yes, I do keep spreadsheets of them. I even have one where I record the bands I’ve seen perform live. And no, it’s not weird. It is organised.
Back in June, I did a half-year round-up – see here. Some of the books, films, albums I picked then have made it through to the end of the year, some haven’t. This time, for a change, I’m going to actually order my choices, from best to, er, least-best.
BOOKS 1 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011)
This is probably the most impressive debut novel I’ve read for a long time. It could almost have been written to appeal directly to me. I like books that do something interesting with structure; it does something interesting with structure. I like books whose prose is immediate and detailed; its prose is immediate (present tense) and detailed. I like books that are broad in subject; it covers a number of different historical periods. And it all makes sense in the end. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for further books by Ward. I read this book in the second half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year best. I wrote more about Girl Readinghere.
2 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)
This year, I’ve actually read eleven genre novels first published during the twelve months, which I think may be a personal record. Having said that, it’s been a good year for genre fiction for me, as a number of my favourite authors have had books out. Sadly not all of them impressed (The Hydrogen Sonata, I’m looking at you). 2312 was everything I expected it to be and nothing like I’d imagined it would be. The plot is almost incidental, which is just as well as the resolution is feeble at best. But the journey there is definitely worth it. It is a novel, I think, that will linger for many years. Again, I read 2312 during the latter half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I wrote more about it here.
3 The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011)
Some collections aim for inclusiveness, some collections try for excellence. I’m not sure why Aqueduct Press chose the stories in this collection – it’s by no means all of Jones’ short fiction – but as a representative selection, The Universe of Things does an excellent job. I reviewed it for Daughters of Prometheus here, and I opened my review with the line: “Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading.” This book did make my half-year list. Now I just have to read PS Publishing’s larger Jones collection, Grazing the Long Acre…
4 Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012)
The endings of Ken’s last few novels I have not found particularly convincing. It’s that final swerve from near-future high-tech thriller into heartland sf. Though the groundwork is usually carefully done, it too often feels like a leap too far. But not in Intrusion. The world-building here is cleverly done – I love the pastiche of Labour, with its “free and social market” – the thriller plot works like clockwork, and the final step sideways into pure genre slots straight in like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Intrusion is another book I read in the second half of 2012, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I reviewed Intrusion for SFF Chronicles here.
5 The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
Curiously, I’d always liked the film adaptation by Bernardo Bertolucci, which inspired me to read the novel, but after finishing the book, I tried rewatching the film and found myself hating it. Mostly it was because the Lyalls, who are creepy and villainous in the novel, had been turned into comic caricatures. A lot had also been left out – though that’s not unusual, given the nature of the medium. The Arabic in the novel used French orthography, which meant I had to translate it twice to work out what it meant. And it looks like four out of the five books in this list I read after June, so the Jones collection is the only one from my half-year list that made it through to the end of the year one.
There are, however, a ton of honourable mentions – it’s turned out to be quite a good year, book-wise. They are: The Bender, Paul Scott (1963), which read like a sophisticated 1960s comedy starring Dirk Bogarde; The Door, Magda Szabó (1987), the best of my world fiction reading challenge (which I really must catch up on and finish); Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994), a very clever novel built up from several stories, including a fun spoof of Taggart and a brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer; How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983), which should be required reading for all writers and critics; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961), which introduced me to the genius that is Lowry; Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012), successfully brings to a close the best fantasy of recent years; Omega, Christopher Evans (2008), a long overdue novel from a favourite writer, and a clever and pleasingly rigorous alternate history / dimension slip work; and Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds (2012), the start of a near-future trilogy, which is very good indeed but also stands out because it’s not regressive or dystopian.
FILMS 1 Red Psalm, Miklós Jancsó (1972)
It’s about the Peasant Uprising in nineteenth-century Hungary, and consists of hippy-ish actors wandering around an declaiming to the camera. Occasionally, they sing folk songs. Then some soldiers arrive and some of the peasants get shot. But they’re not really dead, or injured. Then the landowners turn up and start espousing the virtues of capitalism. But the peasants shout them down. A priest tries to explain the “natural order of things”, but the peasants aren’t having it. Then more soldiers arrive and round up all the peasants. The ending is very clever indeed. It’s a hard film to really describe well, but it’s fascinating and weird and beautifully shot. I wrote about it here.
2 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
This was Antonioni’s first film shot in colour and it looks absolutely beautiful. In terms of story, it is much like his earlier masterpieces, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, and, like them, stars Monica Vitti. But also a (weirdly) dubbed Richard Harris. It’s a surprisingly bleak film – although perhaps not “surprisingly”, given that earlier trilogy – but it’s hard not to marvel at the painterly photography and mise-en-scène – who else would have the fruit on a barrow painted in shades of grey in order to fit in with the colouring of the surroundings? I wrote about it here. And I really must write more on my blog about the films I watch.
3 The Circle, Jafar Panahi (2000)
This is one of those films where one story hands off to another one and so on, and in which there is no real story arc, just a journey through episodes from the lives of the characters. Each of which is a woman living in Tehran, and all of whom have just recently been released from prison. They were not, however, imprisoned for doing things that would be criminal in other nations. As the title indicates, the stories come full circle, and the film’s message is far from happy or pleasing, but there is still room for hope. This film won several awards, though the Iranian authorities were apparently very unhappy with it.
4 No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi (2009)
It’s not about cats, it’s about two musicians in Tehran who have been invited to perform at a music festival in London. But first they need to find some more musicians for their band, and they also need the necessary paperwork to leave Iran. But western-style music, which is what they play, is illegal in Iran, and there’s no way they’ll be able to get the visas they need legally. So they visit all the musicians they know, hoping some of them will be willing to go to London with them, and they also pay a well-known underground figure for the papers they require to travel. It’s an affirming film, but also a deeply depressing one.
5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012)
I was badgered into going to see this at the cinema by Tim Maugham on Twitter. I hadn’t really thought it would appeal to me. Even the fact it was touted as being more faithful to the 2000 AD character didn’t mean I’d like it. Although I grew up reading 2000 AD, Judge Dredd was far from my favourite character, and I’ve not bothered buying any of the omnibus trade paperbacks that are now available. But I went… and was surprised to find it was a bloody good film. It’s sort of like a weird munging together of an art house film and a Dirty Harry film, and strangely the combination works really well. It’s violent and horrible and grim and panders to all the worst qualities in people, but it all makes sense and fits together, and despite its simple plot is cleverly done. I plan to buy the DVD when it is available.
Iranian cinema did well this year for me. Not only did The Circle and No One Knows About Persian Cats make it into my top five, but two more Iranian films get honourable mentions: A Separation, Asghar Fahadi (2011), and The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami (1999). Kiarostami I rate as one of the most interesting directors currently making films. Other honourable mentions go to: John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012), which was undeservedly declared a flop, and is a much cleverer and more sophisticated piece of film-making than its intended audience deserved; Monkey Business, Howard Hawks (1952), is perhaps the screwball comedy par excellence; On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski (1988), is bonkers and unfinished, and yet works really well; there is a type of film I particularly like, but it wasn’t until I saw Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates that I discovered it was called “poetic cinema”, and his Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) is more of the same – weird and beautiful and compelling; and finally, François Ozon’s films are always worth watching and Potiche (2010) is one of his best, a gentle comedy with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in fine form.
ALBUMS 1 The Weight Of Oceans, In Mourning (2012)
I saw a review of this album somewhere which made it seem as though I might like it. So I ordered a copy from Finland – which is where the band and the label are from. And I’ve been playing it almost constantly since. It’s Finnish death/doom metal mixed with progressive metal, which makes it the best of both worlds – heavy and intricate, with melodic proggy bits. The Finns, of course, know how to do death/doom better than anyone, but it’s been a surprise in recent years to discover they can do really interesting prog metal just as well – not just In Mourning, but also Barren Earth (see my honourable mentions below).
2 Griseus, Aquilus (2011)
A friend introduced me to this one. It’s an Australian one-man band, and the music is a weirdly compelling mix of black metal and… orchestral symphonic music. It sounds like the worst kind of mash-up, but it works amazing well. In the wrong hands, I suspect it could prove very bad indeed. Happily, Waldorf (AKA Horace Rosenqvist) knows what he’s doing, and the transitions between the two modes are both seamless and completely in keeping with the atmosphere the album generates. The album is available from Aquilus’s page on bandcamp, so you can give it a listen.
3 Dwellings, Cormorant (2011)
The same friend also introduced me to this band, who self-released Dwellings. It’s extreme metal, but extreme metal that borrows from a variety of sub-genres. I’ve seen one review which describes them as a mix of Ulver, Opeth, Slough Feg and Mithras, which really is an unholy mix (and two of those bands I count among my favourites). Most of the reviews I’ve seen find it difficult to describe the album, but they’re unanimous in their liking for it. And it’s true, it is very hard to describe – there’s plenty of heavy riffing, some folky interludes, some proggy bits, and it all sort of melds together into a complex whole which is much greater than the sum of its parts. This album is also available from the band’s page on bandcamp, and you can listen to it there. (You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m terrible at writing about music. I can’t dance about architecture either.)
4 Woods 4: The Green Album, Woods of Ypres (2009)
Woods of Ypres was a band new to me in 2012. I first heard their final album, Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light, but at Bloodstock I picked up a copy of the preceding album and I think, on balance, I like the earlier one better. The music is a bit like Type O Negative meets black metal, with oboes. Sort of. The opening track ‘Shards of Love’ is, unusually for black metal, about a relationship, and it starts off not like metal at all and then abruptly becomes very metal indeed. An excellent album, with some strong riffs and some nicely quiet reflective moments. (It’s pure coincidence that I chose it as No 4 in my list, incidentally.)
5 Obliterate EP, Siphon the Mammon (2012)
I have no idea how I stumbled across this Swedish progressive death metal band. It was probably the name that caught my attention. And it is a silly name. But never mind. Anyway, I downloaded the EP from their bandcamp page… and discovered it was bloody good. It’s technical and accomplished, with some excellent riffs and song structures. I particularly like ‘The Construct of Plagues’, which features an excellent bass-line, but the final track ‘End of Time’ is also nicely progressive. And… this is the third album in my top five which is available from the band’s bandcamp page, which surely must say something about the music industry and the relevance of labels… or my taste in music…
This year’s honourable mentions go to: (Psychoparalysis), for a trio of EPs I bought direct from the band, and which are good strong Finnish progressive death metal; Anathema’s latest, Weather Systems, which I liked much more than the three or four albums which preceded, and they were bloody good live too; Hypnos 69’s Legacy, which I finally got around to buying and was, pleasingly, more of the same (this is good, of course); Barren Earth’s The Devil’s Resolve, which is definitely heavier than their debut album, but still very proggy and weird; A Forest of Stars, which is steampunk meets black metal, and it works surprisingly well (check out this video here); Nostalgia by Gwynbleidd, who, despite the name, are Poles resident in New York, and sound a little like a cross between Opeth and Northern Oak; Headspace, I Am Anonymous, another Damian Wilson prog rock project, but I think I prefer it on balance to Threshold’s new album; and Alcest, another band new to me in 2012, who play shoegazer black metal, which, unfortunately, works much better on an album than it does live.
And there you have – that was the year that was. On balance, I think it’s been a good year in terms of the literature, cinema and music I have consumed. There’s been some quality stuff, and some very interesting stuff too. Which is not to say there hasn’t been some crap as well, but it seemed less numerous this year. This may be because I chose to ignore what the genre, and popular culture, value and focus more on the sort of stuff that appeals directly to me – I’ve cut down on the number of Hollywood blockbusters I watch, I no longer read as much heartland genre fiction. There’s always a pressure to stay “current”, but the more I watch genre and comment on it, the more I see that it does not value the same things I do. It’s not just “exhaustion”, as identified by Paul Kincaid in his excellent review of two Year’s Best anthologies here, but from my perspective also a parting of the ways in terms of objectives, methods and effects. I want stuff – books, stories, etc – that is fresh and relevant, that does interesting things and says something interesting. I don’t want the usual crap that just blithely and unquestioningly recycles tropes and worldviews, stories about drug dealers on Mars in some USian libertarian near-future, space opera novels in which an analogue of the US gets to replay its military adventures and this time get the result it feels it deserved…
I mentioned in a post last week that I don’t read as much genre short fiction as I feel I should. After all, my views outlined above are taken from the little I’ve read on awards shortlists and in year’s best anthologies. Just because that’s what the genre values doesn’t mean the sort of stuff I value doesn’t exist. I just need to find it. So by including a short fiction best of list in 2013, I’ll be motivated to track down those good stories, to seek out those authors who are writing interesting stories.
All of this, of course, will I hope help with my own writing. I had both a very good year, and a not so good year, in that respect in 2012. Rocket Science, an anthology I edited, and quite obviously the best hard sf anthology of the year, was published in April. As was the first book of my Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. The Guardian described Rocket Science as “superb”, which was very pleasing. And Adrift on the Sea of Rains has had a number of very positive reviews see here. Unfortunately, as a result of those two publications, I haven’t been very productive. I spent most of the year after the Eastercon working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Those few who have read it say it’s as good as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which is a relief. Everyone else will get to find out in January, when it’s published. But I really should have worked on some short fiction as well. I’m not the quickest of writers – I marvel at those people who can bang out a short story in a week – but each story you have published, irrespective of quality, widens your audience a little more, adds a little more weight to your name. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter how good people say Adrift on the Sea of Rains is, I’ve only sold just over 200 copies – add in review copies… and that means perhaps between 250 and 300 people have read it. Some semi-literate self-published fantasy novels available on Kindle sell more copies than that in a week…
But that’s all by the by. This post is about 2012, not 2013. Sadly, I didn’t manage to reread much Durrell to celebrate his centenary. I’ve had The Alexandria Quartet by the side of the bed for about nine months, and I dip into it every now and again, but then I have to put it to one side as I have to read a book for Interzone or SF Mistressworks… Speaking of which, I had to drop to a single review a week on SF Mistressworks, but I still plan to keep it going. During 2012, I read 41 books by women writers, compared to 63 by male writers, which is about 40% of my reading (this doesn’t include graphic novels, non-fiction or anthologies). I also reviewed a handful of books for Daughters of Prometheus, although I haven’t posted one there for several months. (I’ve no plans to drop either responsibility in 2013.) Just over a third of my reading was science fiction, and a quarter was mainstream – so sf is still my genre of choice. Numbers-wise, I’ve not managed as many books as last year – only 146 by the middle of December, whereas last year I’d managed 165 by the end of the year. But I think I’ve read some more substantial books this year, and I did “discover” some excellent writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Katie Ward and Paul Bowles. It’s a shame I never managed to complete my world fiction reading challenge. I still have half of the books on the TBR, so I will work my way through them, though I may not blog about it.
But, for now, it’s Christmas – bah humbug – in a week. And then the start of 2013 follows a week after that. Here’s hoping that next year is better for everyone, that the good outweighs the bad, and that every surprise is a pleasant one.
A bit of an epic post this, partly because in my last readings & watchings I only gave the books I’d read and not the films I’ve watched. But how can more be bad, eh?
Books Troika, Alastair Reynolds (2010), is the first piece of fiction Reynolds has had shortlisted for a Hugo. It lost out on best novella to Ted Chiang, which is unfortunate. With Chiang on the shortlist, everyone else stands little or no chance of taking the award. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Chiang’s award-winning The Lifecycle of Software Objects, though I have the Subterranean Press edition on my book-shelves. And the copy of Troika I read was also the Subterranean Press edition, although the novella originally appeared in Godlike Machines, a SFBC-only anthology. Clearly the US Science Fiction Book Club is quite influential in Hugo nominations. Troika is BDO sf meets alternate Soviet space history, but is not, I think, Reynolds’ best work to date, despite being short-listed. The BDO itself feels too enigmatic, and the final twist on the “present day” sections doesn’t quite make sense of the whole thing. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t have nominated (had I chosen to pay for the privilege of doing so).
SVK, Warren Ellis and d’Israeli (2011), was sold on a gimmick: it requires a black light torch (packaged with the comic) to read some of the speech balloons. It is otherwise a fairly typical Ellis sf piece, with a nice twist in the end. A freelance fixer is called in by a government department to recover a piece of technology, which, it transpires, allows a person to read the thoughts of other people (and it’s those which are printed in invisible ink). D’Israeli’s art is good, Ellis’ dialogue is also good, but it all feels a little thin and a bit overwhelmed by the invisible ink gimmick.
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen (2006), I picked up in a local charity shop because I remembered enjoying her The Rapture (2009) (see here). That later novel had been marketed as literary fiction – Jensen herself is marketed as a literary fiction writer – but was plainly sf. And so the title of My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time suggested the same also held true for it. And so it does. A prostitute in late 19th century Copenhagen goes to work as a cleaner for the widow of an inventor who vanished several years before. In the basement of the widow’s house, the prostitute finds a strange device… and is inadvertently catapulted to modern-day London. There she discovers the inventor and a colony of time-displaced Danes, all of whom have chosen to build new lives in twenty-first century Britain. All have been warned, however, to keep their contact with the locals to a minimum. But then the prostitute falls in love with a London man… The story is told entirely in the prostitute’s voice, which gets a little wearying after a while, but it’s well-handled. I think I’ll seek out some more of Jensen’s books.
Silversands, Gareth L Powell (2010), is Powell’s first published novel. It was published by Pendragon Press – and Powell’s first novel by a major publisher, The Recollection, has just come out from Solaris. Something similar happened to Mark Charan Newton. Perhaps it’s a pattern. Silversands is a solid sf mystery set on a a colony world. When a ship from Earth arrives – it’s important to the plot that the wormholes which connect the colonies can’t be navigated – it triggers a series of events which threaten to bring down the colony’s government. Though only short, the novel is well-paced, the characters rounded, and the setting sketched in with skill. Despite all this, it’s not especially memorable, perhaps because its one big idea is peripheral to the plot and only impacts at the end.
Adventures in Capitalism, Toby Litt (1996). To be honest, the most interesting thing about Litt’s career so far has been his intention that each of his book be alphabetically titled. Which is not say that those of his books I’ve read so far have been bad. I quite enjoyed Corpsing (2000), and while Journey into Space (2009) was a little old-fashioned I did think it nicely-written. But the stories in this collection, Adventures in Capitalism, are somewhat variable, and several of them are, well, a bit dull.
Spin State, Chris Moriarty (2003), was August’s book for the reading challenge, and I wrote about here.
The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis (1955), is the seventh Narnia book by year of publication, but the first according to internal chronology. In fact, it’s a prequel and explains the origin of Narnia. Which is that, well, Aslan made it. Just like that. But in a lot less time than six days. Neighbours Digory and Polly use one of Digory’s uncle’s magic rings and find themselves in a strange wood. In the wood are pools of water, and each pool leads to a different world. Unfortunately, the first world they visit is in some sort of magical stasis, after evil witch Jadis spoke the Deplorable Word in order to defeat her ruling sister (I can think of many deplorable words, so I’ve no idea which particular one Jadis actually used). Digory foolishly wakes Jadis, who follows them back to Victorian London, and promptly wreaks havoc as she tries to conquer it – despite her magic powers not working. In desperation, Digory and Polly use the rings… and send themselves, Jadis, a cabbie, his horse, and their uncle to a land of nothingness. Then they hear singing, light appears, and so too does Aslan, and Narnia is created. There are some nice touches: a piece of a street lamp used by Jadis as a weapon in London is dropped by her, and becomes the street lamp in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Jadis becomes the White Witch; and the cabbie and his wife become the first kind and queen of Narnia, despite being working class.The dialogue throughout is quite fun, although, the Garden of Eden rip-off was blatant and the general tone of the book is very preachy. Definitely one of the better books of the series, though I still wouldn’t recommend them to a kid.
From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming (1957), is the fifth 007 book, but was the second film to be made. It was also a far more successful film than its predecessor Dr No, and so probably responsible for the existence of the franchise. Given that I’d previously read four Bond novels, you’d think I’d know what to expect from the fifth one. Admittedly, my memory’s vague on the plot of the film – I remember only the periscope, the attack in the gypsy camp, and the iconic punt through the Basilica Cistern. The first two certainly make an appearance in the book, but not the third. And if I’d thought the other Bond books contained an uncomfortable strand of misogyny, in From Russia with Love it’s downright offensive. Not only does Istanbul station chief Karim Bey insist that all women want to be raped, but the scene at the gypsy camp sees the women present treated as nothing more than amusement for the men. Then there’s the racial stereotyping and racism… Bond was better when he stayed in the UK. I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone, and the more of them I read the more I’m convinced they only remain in print because of the film franchise.
Orbital Vol 4: Ravages, Sylvain Runerg & Serge Pellé (2010) is, I think the last of this series – at least the ending suggests as much. Though it’s been sold as the fourth book of a series, it’s actually the second in a two-part story – with Volume 3 Nomads – as the story continues on directly from that earlier volume. Something alien and mysterious has been killing fish – and now people – in the mangrove swamps near Kuala Lumpur, just as the preparations for a celebration of the Human-Sanjarr alliance (they fought a war not so long ago) are in full swing. The locals are revolting and convinced some alien nomads who have settled in the swamp are responsible. They’re not, of course. At least, not directly. I’ve enjoyed this series – it’s good solid sf, nicely drawn and well thought-out. If it seems a bit abrupt in places, or choppy in others, I suspect that’s more the style of bandes desinée than it is the fault of the writer.
Films What A Way To Go, dir. J Lee Thompson (1964). Every now and again I like to watch a bit of fluff. Once, my preferred choice had been crap science fiction films – of which there are very, very many – but watching them is actually hard work. Now, I’d much sooner watch something from the 1950s or early 1960s – they’re far more entertaining, there are no bad special effects to burn out your eyes, the acting is of a much higher calibre, and the scripts actually display some wit. Having said all that, What A Way To Go is a bit of an odd beast. Shirley MacLaine plays a young woman who inadvertently inspires each man she marries to become successful and rich. So much so, in fact, that on her last husband’s death, she is determined to give away the vast fortune she has amassed. But the government won’t accept it. (Things were clearly very different in those days.) Her husbands are played by Dick van Dyke, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, and Robert Mitchum – so this is a star-studded comedy. There’s even an extended dance number – with MacLaine and Kelly, of course – in the middle. It’s quite a strange film. I enjoyed it, though.
…All the Marbles, dir. Robert Aldrich (1981), was Aldrich’s last film, and while it has its moments, it’s not especially memorable. Peter Falk plays the manager of a female tag-team wrestling duo. Most of the matches are fixed, but the two wrestlers are determined to make it to the final in Las Vegas. And so they do – though not without Falk making some enemies along the way. This is a pretty grim film. The characters are just about hanging on, and the story takes them through some of the grimmer parts of the United States. I think it’s supposed to be a comedy, though there aren’t many laughs. At least, some of the characters are so broadly-drawn, they belong in a comedy. The wrestling itself reminds me wrestling on British telly back in the early 1980s, during the heyday of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and the like. Although, of course, they weren’t women.
Where The Sidewalk Ends, dir. Otto Preminger (1950). I do like Preminger’s movies. I’m not so keen on Dana Andrews as a leading man, however. He always strikes me as a bit too louche and expressionless for the roles he plays. In this film – consider a classic noir – Andrews is a police detective who accidentally kills a suspect. He tries to cover up the death by accusing a cabbie who called on the victim. Except the cabbie is actually the victim’s father-in-law, and Andrews’ detective falls in love with the estranged wife (played by Gene Tierney). This is classic twisty-turny stuff, all baggy suits and trilbies and mean streets. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Skyline, dir. the Strause Brothers (2010), is, as far as I understand, a rip-off of Battle: Los Angeles, for which the Strause brothers provided special effects. For whatever reason, they decided they could do a better job themselves, and made their own film. Perhaps they should have stuck to special effects. There are some mysterious aliens. And they have attacked Los Angeles. And there is a bunch of bad actors stuck in a penthouse apartment, who try to escape. Er, that’s about it. Avoid.
Shirin, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2008). I’ve now seen three films by Kiarostami – and several more by other Iranian directors – and I’m still not quite what to make of him. Certified Copy (2010) was a clever and accomplished drama (see my VideoVista review here); Taste of Cherry (1997) was odd but entertaining, though the ending was near-genius; but Shirin… The film takes place in a cinema with an entirely female audience. The camera moves from face to face, while the dialogue from the movie being shown is heard (it’s the story of Khosrow and Shirin, a 800-year old Persian tale). That’s it. A series of close-ups of faces, many in hijab. For 92 minutes. I don’t think it works as a concept.
Brief Encounter, dir. David Lean (1945). I’d never seen this before. I know, unbelievable. But there you go. And now that I have seen it… I was disappointed. Perhaps because it does exactly what it says on the tin. Celia Johnson travels regularly into town on the train. One day, she meets Leslie Howard. They enjoy each other’s company, so they meet whenever they’re in town. It goes further. Meanwhile, both have families at home. I actually felt sorry for Johnson’s husband – he seemed like a decent sort. And she was so drippy, the whole affair felt about as __
Videodrome, dir. David Cronenberg (1983), is another film I’ve somehow not seen in the twenty-seven years since it was released, though I have seen many of Cronenberg’s other films. It is… odd, though it hasn’t aged well. All that snuff television, screwing with your minds stuff is a little old. I suspect some of it was back in 1983. The weird organic gun was peculiar, as was the body-horror bits. Sometimes they felt like they belonged in a different film. And there was a surprising cheapness to the production, which I hadn’t expected – perhaps because Cronenberg’s later films have better production values. Oh well, I’ve seen it now.
Moolaadé, dir. Ousmane Sembène (2004). I’ve found myself watching a lot of African cinema in recent years, particularly North African. So when Lovefilm threw up Moolaadé – set in West Africa – I wasn’t especially interested in seeing it. But I stuck it on my “world cinema” list, and several weeks later it was sent to me. And i thought it excellent. It’s set in a small rural village in Burkina Faso. Three girls have run away from the traditional female circumcision ceremony and seek protection from Collé, who had refused to have her daughter’s genitals mutilated a few years before. Collé use moolaadé, magical protection, to ensure the girls are kept safe within her house – or rather, the house of her husband, which she shares with his other two wives. The men of the village are not amused, as they consider female circumcision necessary for marriage, as well as required by Islam (neither, of course, is true). In an effort to control the women of the village, the men gather up all their radios and destroy them. A visiting trader – a veteran of the local civil war – takes the side of the women, as does the headman’s son, who has recently returned from working in France. But the women are not empowered, and it does not go well. This is an excellent film, a definite contender for my best of the year. I’d like to see more by Sembène but, unfortunately, Moolaadé is the only film of his available on DVD in the UK. Make more available, please.
Star Trek: The Next Generation season 4 (1990), in which the Enterprise-D boldly goes on and on and on, in its continuing mission to provide bland science fiction television entertainment with the occasional episode which makes you sit up and take notice. Not to mention the several episodes which are downright embarrassing – like ‘Brothers’, in which Picard returns home to France and argues with his brother. Or ‘Data’s Day’ – but then, I never liked the character of Data. Or the one with Lwaxana Troi in it, another character I dislike. On the other hand, Legacy’, in which Tasha Yar’s sister plays one faction against the other against the Enterprise isn’t bad. And ‘The Drumhead’ manages a consistent feeling of paranoia throughout. But the overwhelming sense seems to be of blandness – bland uniforms, bland characters, bland stories. Four seasons in it and it feels like the programme is already well settled into a rut. It needs jollying out of it. Perhaps that happens in season 5. I can but hope.
Kiss Them for Me, dir. Stanley Donen (1957), I watched most of on Film4, but then ended up buying the DVD for a couple of quid. What an odd film. It’s ostensibly a screwball comedy, set during World War II, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Cary Grant plays a war hero Navy pilot who’s had enough, and wangles a week’s furlough in San Francisco with two buddies. The trio plan to get drunk and party the entire time. And so they mostly do. Jayne Mansfield plays a dumb blonde, with a voice like fingernails on a blackboard, as comic relief, but Grant has his eye set on Suzy Parker (who, for some bizarre reason, had her voice dubbed over by Deborah Kerr), the fiancée of an industrialist who could arrange for Grant and his buddies to sit out the rest of the war. Grant leers a lot, there are some strange comic turns, and the natives of San Francisco don’t exactly seem brimming over with patriotism.
Next, dir. Lee Tamahori (2007), stars Nicolas Cage, who perhaps in some alternate world hasn’t turned into a parody of himself. Perhaps in that same alternate world, Philip K Dick’s stories won’t have been bent and twisted in the service of Hollywood, and he’s mostly remembered as a sf author and not a provider of glossy middle-brow concept movies. In Next, Cage can see two minutes into the future, and the FBI are after him because they’ve figured this out and are convinced his talent can help them find the nuclear bomb terrorists have hidden somewhere in the US. It’s all very silly, Cage plays his part with a sort of wooden-faced intensity, and Tamahori manages some good action set-pieces. Dick’s stories demand you think about them; the films they’ve made of his stories demand you don’t.
Caramel, dir. Nadine Labaki (2007), was a surprise. It’s about three women who work in a beauty salon in Beirut. One is in an affair with a married man, and hasn’t noticed that the local policeman is in love with her. Another is a lesbian, and fancies one of the salon’s customers. And the third is engaged but has not told her husband she is not a virgin and is afraid of the consequences should he learn so. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The cast play their parts well, and there’s much about the story that is very Lebanese. While Caramel may be a feel-good movie, it’s not insultingly so.
The Stoning of Soraya M, dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh (2008), I had mixed feelings about. Like the female circumcision in Moolaadé, stoning is barbaric and unjustifiable. The Stoning of Soraya M is apparently based on a true story. It’s set in a village in Iran, where a man falsely accuses his wife of adultery because she won’t divorce him and allow him to marry a younger woman. Stoning is barbaric. Any justice system in which women are judged more harshly than men is barbaric. any justice system which sentences people to death is barbaric. It doesn’t need for Soraya M to be innocent and virtuous. So what if she had committed adultery? The fact she was stone is condemnation enough of the village and its justice. Making the husband out to be a manipulative moustache-twirling villain is entirely unnecessary and feels like the story is pandering to people who might consider adultery crime enough – for a woman only, of course – to require severe punishment. The Stoning of Soraya M is a film worth seeing but, sadly, it undermines its own argument.
Twelfth Night, dir. John Gorrie (1980), I’m fairly sure I saw when I was at school, though the Shakespeare play I studied for English O Level was Henry IV, Part 1. It’s another typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities and cross-dressing. Felicity Kendall plays Viola/Cesario, Robert Hardy is Sir Toby Belch, Clive Arrindell is Orsino, and Sinéad Cusack is Olivia. Alec McCowen plays a good Malvolio, both unctuous and creepy. I was, incidentally, surprised to discover that the line “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” is from this play – specifically from a love letter written by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste the jester, but purpotedly from his mistress, Olivia, as revenge on Malvolio. In context, it seems an ironic choice of phrase for people who use it to justify their own over-inflated sense of worth. Much Ado About Nothing remains the best of the comedies I’ve seen so far, though this one comes a close second.
Blake’s Seven series 4 (1981) feels like an unwanted coda to the first three series. And so it was. The makers had not expected to be renewed after series three, and so had to quickly cobble together something for an additional thirteen episodes. Including a new spaceship, since they had blown up Liberator. Plus a new base. And several new additions to the “Seven”. The base is underground and belongs to a salvage-man of dubious legality who Avon’s gang defeat and kill in a story entirely ripped off from The Picture of Dorian Gray. His lover and partner, Soolin, joins Avon, and the obsequious computer of his ship, Scorpio, makes up the seven. The Federation/empire ruled by Servalan which Blake and co had destroyed is now busy recreating itself, but Servalan – believed dead – is reviled. So she has re-invented herself as Sleer, a police commissioner, and is busy planning a return to power. It’s as well Blake’s Seven finished after this season. The special effects are embarrassingly cheap, the sets more so, the stories don’t make much sense, and the story-arc seems to lurch about without coming close to any sort of end. So they killed everyone off. They should have kept it to three series.
Chronicles of Narnia 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, dir. Michael Apted (2010), led to a small discussion on Twitter. I maintain the films are better than the books – I find the books deeply patronising, and their old-fashioned sensibilities often offensive. The films at least have modernised the books’ attitudes. However, as was pointed out to me, this has not always been done for the better. When on the island of the invisible Dufflepuds, in the book a magic tome allows Lucyto hear what everyone else thinks for her, whereas in the film she imagines what her life might be like were she as beautiful as her sister, Susan. It’s a step backwards as Lewis was mostly evenhanded in his treatment of gender, with the girls as noble and heroic as the boys. But then, the best bit of the Narnia books is that the Pevensie children remained in Narnia as kings and queens, grew up and ruled wisely… and then returned to their real lives as children, no more than minutes older than when they had left. Lewis throws all that away in a single line. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a string of minor adventures, in which Prince Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and cousin Useless Eustace try to discover the fates of the seven lost Lords of Narnia. Which they do.
Only Angels Have Wings, dir. Howard Hawks (1939), is the sort of Hemingway-esque movie they don’t make any more. And with good reason: it’s mostly nonsense. Cary Grant plays the manager of a small fleet of aeroplanes which carry mail over the Andes. It’s a dangerous job because they don’t have radar, or even planes powerful enough to fly over the tops of the mountains. So they have a tendency to crash in the passes when the weather is bad. And it’s often bad. There’s lots of macho posturing, the dialogue is snappy, Cary Grant makes good fist of his role despite the part not requiring debonair charm, Rita Hayworth smoulders, and the model-work for the aeroplanes almost convinces. I do like the Silver Fox’s movies, and many of them are classics, but I’m finding that the ones I like are not always the ones everyone else likes…
30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, dir. Gabriel Bologna (2007), was produced by The Global Asylum. So when I sat down to watch it I knew I was going to get a shit film. I was not disappointed. It’s allegedly an update of Verne’s classic, though how increasing the number of leagues signals that fact is a mystery. A US ballistic missile sub has sunk in a deep marine trench, and so the Navy calls in Lieutenant Arronax and his deep sea submersible. To make matters more interesting, they put the submersible under the command of Arronax’s ex-wife, Lieutenant Commander Conciel. The submersible descends from the USS Abraham Lincoln (an Iowa-class battleship that can somehow manage 75 knots) to 20,000 feet, where the missile sub lies. Bizarrely, there is a bubble of reduced pressure there, which allows the crew of the submersible to use ordinary scuba gear. It doesn’t explain how the missile sub didn’t implode on its way down, however. Also down there is a vast submarine, commanded by Captain Nemo, who wants to use the sub’s nuclear missiles to destroy the world above the waves. Arronax must stop him, even though some of his crew have been brainwashed by a device of Nemo’s. This film has no redeeming qualities – the CGI is crap, the acting is worse, the script is dreadful – with exchanges such as “I want it soon.” “How soon?” “Immediately!” – and the story makes no sense. How The Global Asylum remains in business is a mystery.
Mammoth, dir. Lukas Moodysson (2009). I was not very impressed by Moodysson’s Container – although I like his other films, especially Lilya 4-Ever – so was somewhat afraid I’d feel the same about this film. But I actually thought it was superb. A young dotcom millionaire files out to Thailand to sign a deal with some venture capitalists. His wife is a surgeon in the ER at a New York hospital. Their nanny is a Filipina, who has left her two young sons back in the Philippines. But it’s a film mostly about children. In Thailand, the millionaire heads for the beach, bored by the negotiations, and there meets a young prostitute. He pays her to go home, rather than sleep with him. But she returns the following day and offers to be his guide. Meanwhile, the wife objects to the nanny introducing the couple’s young daughter to Filipino culture. While in the Philippines, the older of the two boys tries to make extra money by selling his body. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good as the young millionaire, but the rest of the cast are also very good. An excellent film, and another contender for the best of the year.
Moonwalk One, dir. Theo Kamecke (1970), I will be reviewing at some point on my Space Books blog. It’s a strangely hippie documentary of the Apollo 11 mission, which gives a very real idea of contemporary reactions to it.
Dark Descent, dir. Wilfred Schmidt (2004). When I saw a description of this, I thought it might prove interesting as it’s set in an undersea habitat in the Challenger Deep. What I hadn’t expected it to be is a complete rip-off of Outland (which was itself “inspired” by High Noon). Dean Cain (how the, er, super have fallen) plays the marshal of the aforementioned habitat, which is actually a mining-town. He’s cleaned the place up as it was a hive of scum and villainy – well, drunken violence, the occasional murder, prostitution and vice. Days before he is due to be relieved, he learns that three villains he put away are on their way back to take their revenge. But everyone else in the facility is afraid of them. There is too much in this film which makes no sense. The facility is at the deepest part of the ocean, and the pressure outside is seven tons per square inch. It’s such a dangerous place, in which survival is so totally dependent on machinery, you wouldn’t put there the sort of people who would booze it up, get violent, and behave like criminals. Stupid. The rest of the plot involves some drug which allows humans to take the pressure – water pressure or the stress of the job? Can’t be the water pressure, because no pill is going to make seven tons per square inch survivable. As is later proven when a jet of water at that pressure goes straight through a man. Anyway, the local doctor has been secretly trialling overdoses of the drug, and this has led to a series of suicides. When Cain gets suspicious, the company hires the three villains to sort him out. A film to avoid.
Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego (2011), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.
A month into the year, more or less, and so time for some more filler in lieu of proper content. Here are the books I’ve read and the films I’ve seen…
Books The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010). Dear me, how much did they spend on this? Nearly $4 million for the trilogy? No wonder it’s been hyped to buggery. Was it worth the money? Sadly, no. The first third is very good indeed, but then the book bogs down badly, and never quite recovers. Further, everything in it is just far too familiar, there’s almost nothing that’s new. And those borrowings are entirely from films – in no way does The Passage build on earlier vampire or post-apocalyptic written works. It’s like watching a “That’s Showbusiness” compilation, one that’s been extended to last most of the day. I can understand the book selling well – it would be strange if it hadn’t, given all the money spent on marketing it – but I’m puzzled by its inclusion on so many best of the year lists. Did I miss the memo? Was I not concentrating when we all decided as a genre that recycling tired old clichés from movies was preferable to new, innovative ideas? I wrote a bit about The Passagehere.
Genesis, Bernard Beckett (2006), I recall hearing good things about a couple of years ago. But at the time the book proved somewhat elusive. Recently, it re-appeared in a very cheap edition, so I bought a copy. It’s a not a novella, it’s a YA novel. And a thin one at that. I hated it. It’s framed as the oral examination of a candidate for the Academy, the ruling elite of an island nation which is all that remains after a plague has devastated the Earth. The first few questions of this exam are effectively, “explain the world of this story to the reader so they can follow what little plot the book possesses”. We then get pages of badly-disguised info-dumps, in which the character speaks not in dialogue but in descriptive prose. There’s an interesting twist at the end, the writing is mostly very good, the book presents complex ideas in an easily-digestible fashion, but it’s all been done before and it’s so clumsily-structured it’s almost embarrassing to read.
0.4, Mike Lancaster (2011), I actually read for review for Interzone, but it proved unsuitable as it’s aimed at eleven-year-olds. It’s another sf novel which references film and television, but not the written form. So nothing in it seems especially original. Still, I wasn’t the target audience, so it’s no surprise I found it unsatisfactory.
The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989), was the first book of this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.
Spreading My Wings, Diana Barnato Walker (2003), I read for research for a story I was writing. Barnato Walker was an early British aviatrix – she learnt to fly between the wars, and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary when it was formed during World War II. Later, she flew a BAC Lightning and became the first British woman to pilot an aircraft through the Sound Barrier. Spreading My Wings, despite the somewhat naff title, is a fascinating read. Barnato Walker’s voice is engaging, she has a remarkable memory for details, and she led an interesting life.
The Sodom and Gomorrah Business, Barry N Mazlberg (1974), in which Malzberg attempts to channel JG Ballard and fails. I know Malzberg was a mainstay of the US New Wave (take note: not the New Wave, which was British, but the US movement of the same name it inspired; the US New Wave needs that qualifying “US” to distinguish it from the original (British) New Wave). The Sodom and Gomorrah Business would happily have fitted into either movement on each side of the Atlantic, although I suspect it’s closer to the UK side in tone and implementation. At some indefinite point in the near-ish future, two young men from an institute which produces mercenaries play hooky and visit the nearby post-apocalyptic city. They’re captured by “savages”, who prove to be not quite as uncivilised as advertised, and one is forced into leading them in an attack on the institution. Which is run entirely by robots, who are themselves running down. It’s all very hip and nihilistic, but the prose can’t quite carry it.
Spacesuits, Amanda Young (2009), is about, well, spacesuits – specifically the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s collection. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.
Sylvow, Douglas Thompson (2010), I reviewed for Interzone instead of 0.4. Thompson could be a name to watch, if this is any indication. Weirdly, the name of the publisher of Sylvow, Eibonvale Press, appears nowhere on this book, not even on the spine.
First on the Moon, Jeff Sutton (1958), is Sutton’s debut novel and its title pretty much tells you the plot. It’s all manly men of America and dastardly Russkies, pure pulp from start to finish, and not especially scientifically accurate, despite the author being an aviation journalist. I plan to review it on my Space Books blog.
Reflections from Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott (2005), is the short, copiously-illustrated autobiography of an astronaut who flew on two Shuttle missions. A review of it will appear on my Space Books blog soon.
Films Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Series 6 (1997). So only one season left and I’ll have seen the lot. I’ve heard it said by many, and I was starting to believe it myself, that Deep Space Nine is the best of the Trek franchises. But, oh dear, they plumbed the depths in this season. The war with the Dominion was getting interesting, although the Vorta Weyoun is really irritating. But they resolved the war – at least as it pertains to Deep Space Nine itself – by retaking the station in one of the crappiest-looking and unconvincing space battles in Trek history. Other episodes tried hard for interesting themes, but only proved embarrassingly bad. The student crew of a battleship behind enemy lines, for example. The writers aimed for pathos, missed, and hit bathos. The episode where Quark changes sex in order to help Grand Nagus Zek back into power was cringe-inducing. The Ferengi are cringe-inducing, anyway. Who thought comedy Shylocks was a good idea? Even the better episodes in this season can’t compare with earlier seasons – O’Brian makes an unconvincing undercover cop, and the reason why he was recruited is never satisfactorily explained; the super-secret Section 31 seems completely antithetical to the philosophy of Trek; and the episodes set in the Vegas show-lounge on the holodeck just seemed really cheap. Let’s hope the final season is better.
State Of The Union, dir. Frank Capra (1948). I don’t know why Capra gets so much stick. I really enjoyed It’s A Wonderful Life, and Lost Horizon is a pretty good film. I suppose Capra was one of your original “Hollywood liberals”, and so it’s become the fashion to sneer at his output. And it’s true that State Of The Union doesn’t map onto modern US politics – and probably didn’t map onto US politics of 1948, either. Spencer Tracy plays a self-made millionaire – an aircraft manufacturer, of course – who is persuaded to run for high office. He’s estranged from his wife, played by Katherine Hepburn, but in order to secure the Republican nomination, they need to pretend to be happily wed. Cue much rapid-fire screwball rom com banter, and an eventual happy ending. By all accounts, Capra’s film stripped out much of the wit in the original play, written by Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsay. Perhaps it’s true that Capra’s films can be a little anodyne – even the politics espoused in State Of The Union is a combination of common-sense and light Hollywood liberalism. As a satire on American politics, the film has little bite. But then, I suspect it was never intended to. The title may reference the president’s annual speech, but it’s the union between Tracy and Hepburn which has precedence in the film. Capra’s reputation may have tarnished somewhat over the years, but he still made entertaining, enjoyable films… which was not always true of his contemporaries.
A Winter’s Tale, dir. Éric Rohmer (1992), is the second of Rohmer’s Contes quatre saison. Félicie fell in love with Charles while on holiday, but stupidly gave him the wrong address by mistake when the holiday ended. As he was heading off to the US, she had no way of contacting him… or of telling him that he was now the father of a daughter. Five years pass. Félicie is a hairdresser in Paris, sleeping with both Maxence, owner of the salon where she works, and librarian Loïc. But she still loves Charles. Maxence persuades her to move with him Nevers, to live with him and work in the salon he is opening there. She agrees. But she’s unable to settle down with Maxence – she can’t love him the way she loves Charles – so she returns to Paris… and entirely coincidentally bumps into Charles on a bus. So they get back together. Like the first film of the quartet, A Tale Of Springtime (see here), this is a quiet, slow but deep study of its characters – especially Félicie. She’s not especially likable – Loïc loves her, but she’s clearly not his intellectual equal and it’s hard to determine what she gets from her relationship with him. Maxence, at least, makes for a more understandable partner for her, but even then she fails to understand his expectations. Félicie comes across as a spoilt dreamer… but then Rohmer allows her dream to come true. As a result, the film lacks any real resolution.
Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, dir. Chris Columbus (2010), is based on a popular YA fantasy series, just like the Harry Potter films. And just like the Harry Potter films, it’s about a teenager who discovers he is not an ordinary person, but has special powers. Even more so, just like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson’s powers are more special than those of the other kids with special powers. This because he is a son of Poseidon. When someone steals Zeus’ lightning bolt, everyone suspects Percy Jackson, although he has been happily living the life of a mundane, unaware of his special Harry-Potter-like powers. This abrupt eruption of Greek godly adventure into his life, he takes with aplomb, a readiness to learn how to use his special powers, and a beady eye for a feisty young woman. The Greek pantheon is cleverly integrated into this Harry Potter clone – it is, at least, a bit more original than Jennings Goes to Wizard School – but it still feels like by-the-numbers for a target audience. Good special effects, though.
From Here To Eternity, dir. Fred Zinnemann (1953), is one of those classic 1950s films everyone knows of. Well, there’s that iconic scene with Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling about and snogging in the surf. In fact, that was pretty much all I knew about the film. That, and Frank Sinatra was in it and won an Oscar for best supporting actor. So I was somewhat surprised to discover that it’s not really about Lancaster’s character, but about the one played by Montgomery Clift. And it’s about boxing – or rather, not boxing – in the US Army. It’s also set in Hawaii, in the year leading up to Pearl Harbour. Clift plays a bugler who has transferred to a rifle company on Oahu. He used to be a boxer, and was very good at it, but gave up when he blinded a friend during a sparring bout. The rifle company’s CO, however, won’t take no for an answer, and instructs his NCOs to begin a campaign of harassment and bullying until Clift agrees to box. Lancaster, the first sergeant, a man’s man and a soldier’s soldier, disagrees with his CO, and does his best to make sure Clift comes to no real harm. Meanwhile, Lancaster has also fallen in love with his CO’s wife, Kerr, which is a definite no-no in the armed forces. Sinatra plays Clift’s buddy in the barracks, who’s a bit of a chancer and introduces Clift to the Oahu night-life. To be honest, Lancaster should have got the Oscar – he’s the best thing in the entire film. It’s also bizarre that the film never mentions the war taking place elsewhere on the planet… until it abruptly intrudes in the final quarter of the film. I suspect there was a better film to be made of From Here To Eternity‘s script, because this one feels too ordinary for much of its length to justify the eight Oscars it won. A classic, then, but not a great classic.
The Seventh Continent, dir. Michael Haneke (1989), was Haneke’s debut film, and is apparently inspired by a true story. A young Austrian couple, solidly middle-class, with a young daughter; she works and co-owns an opthalmic practice, he’s an engineer at a chemical plant. Haneke shows us a day in their life – troubles at work, dull routine, a voice-over reading out a letter from the wife to her mother-in-law. We then see another similar day a year later. Some things have changed for the better, some for the worse. But their life together is still mostly comfortable. In the final part of the film, the couple tell all their friends and relatives they are emigrating to Australia. They empty their bank accounts, sell their half of the opthalmic practice, and spend all their money on a massive feast. They then smash everything in their house. Finally, they commit suicide. No reason is given for them taking their lives, and nothing is presented in the first two parts of the film which might explain it. So, right from the start Haneke was making films which defied easy explanation, which did not adhere to the usual rules of film narrative. Last year, I bought the Michael Haneke Collection DVD set, which contains Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time Of The Wolf and Hidden. Annoyingly, Artificial Eye have now brought out the Michael Haneke Anthology DVD set, which contains ten of his films – all but The White Ribbon, in fact. And including the four I already own. Bah.
Laputa – Castle In The Sky, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1986), is the second of Studio Ghibli’s film, which I am slowly working my way through (though I’ve seen several of the later ones). There’s lots in here that’s common to Miyazaki’s films – the feisty young girl, the bizarre steampunk-ish aesthetic, the teenage boy sidekick, a world recovering from a past unexplained catastrophe, a focus on a simple life-style, and a villain with a moustache… In the world of Laputa – Castle In The Sky, there used to be flying cities, but most have gone – all except Laputa, which is now considered near-mythical. Sheeta escapes from Colonel Muska when pirates, led by their mother Dola, attack the airship carrying her. She is found by Puza, who agrees to help her. The chase is on – both Muska and Dola after Sheeta and Puza. But it turns out Dola and her piratical sons are actually the good guys, and with their help Sheeta and Puza find the lost flying city of Laputa. Which is what Muska was after – or rather, its fabulous technology. But only Sheeta and Puza hold the secret to the city. Entertaining, with some lovely visuals, but the plot is a little too familiar and doesn’t quite hang together in a couple of places.