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Moving pictures 2018, #61

And another eclectic – or should that be catholic?-  half-dozen films, albeit not so geographically varied as half of them are from China…

Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón (2001, Mexico). I’ve known of this film for years, and that it was highly regarded, but until I came to watch it I hadn’t realised it was by Cuarón, or that he made it after some of his better-known films. Or indeed that Cuarón was Mexican. I had thought he was Spanish. Anyway, Y Tu Mamá También is one of those back-to-basics film projects successful directors make every now and again, and which occasionally end up as the best film in their oeuvre. Which doesn’t seem to be entirely true of Cuarón, although this is certainly one of his better pieces of work. Two teenagers agree to take a young woman to a beach they invented… a day or two drive south of Mexico City. Each have their reasons for making the road trip– and that’s what this is, a road trip movie. The young woman has just left her husband after learning he is having an affair. The two teenagers have the hots for her… and it turns out there is more at stake than initially seems. Surprisingly, it turns out the made-up beach actually exists, and the three spend an idyllic few days camping there. But the woman has cancer and not long to live, and when they decide to return to the city, she remains behind with a local family. I was under the impression this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but it’s not, or at least not the 2013 version, which is the one I’m using. It probably deserves to be on the list. I think it was this film which made Gael García Bernal an international star.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Henry King (1952, USA). The story from which this was adapted is generally considered to be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best. I am not, I must admit, much of a Hemingway fan – or much of a fan of the many film adaptations made of his fiction. Even so, he was ill-served by this one. Gregory Peck plays a writer who is dying of a gangrenous wound while on safari. There are a couple of flashbacks explaining how he injured himself, but much of the story is in the extended flashbacks which detail the writer’s career. How he started out feeling sorry for himself, lived off his wife – Ava Gardner – in a poor quarter of Paris, became successful but then Gardner becomes an alcoholic after a miscarriage and leaves him. He takes up with a countess, but she dumps him when she realises he still loves Gardner. So he heads off to Spain to find her, gets embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, finds Gardner driving an ambulance on the front mere moments before she’s killed by an enemy shell… Back in Paris, he meets the woman he’s on safari with. Apparently, in the story he dies, but Hollywood went for the happy ending and he’s rescued in time. I can understand why people consider this one of Hemingway’s best stories – it has all his favourite things in it, well, except for bull-fighting, I don’t remember any bull-fighting but Peck spends time in Spain so maybe there was. Missable.

Under the Shadow, Babak Anvari (2016, UK). A horror film made by an Iranian director with an Iranian cast who speak Farsi and which is set in Tehran… but turns out to be a UK production filmed in Jordan? Such is the nature of twenty-first century film financing. None of which should be taken as a criticism of Under the Shadow as a film qua film. It is enormously effective. I’m a big fan of Iranian cinema and happy to slot this one in it, for all that it didn’t even get within shouting distance of the country. The story is relatively simple – a married couple with a young daughter find their flat haunted by a djinn, but the husband, who is sent away to serve on the front, is sceptical of his wife’s complaints. Once he’s away things gets worse, and it’s a battle between the woman and the evil spirit that seems to have occupied their building. For much of its length, Under the Shadow is like a domestic Iranian drama by Kiarostami or Farhadi, which is high praise indeed. But then it shifts into a horror register, and while the scares are relatively tame by current standards they’re effective – and I for one appreciate scares that are just that, scares, not gruesome dismemberings or something. Definitely worth seeing.

To My Wife, Wang Xiaolie (2012, China). So, for a variety of reasons, mainly involving an upgrade that actually made an app almost entirely useless, but such is the way of techbros and their reading too much into bad science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s (seriously, as fans of the genre we have a lot to fucking answer for), but anyway the film I’d planned to watch was unavailable. And I found myself unwilling to watch another episode of one of the many box sets my mother has lent me, so I went hunting on Amazon Prime. And found this. A solid Chinese drama that doesn’t even have a complete IMDB entry. It opens with two men about to be executed on, er, the seashore. It’s all to do with a woman and the last days of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912. The scene cuts to a young woman in a sports car on an empty road, she turns a corner out of sight, and we hear her crash. Now she’s in the past, in the years leading up to 1912, with a patron who supports the Qing dynasty and a brother and a fiancé who both support the end of the empire but in different ways. There are scenes of her after the car crash, now in a coma… But the she wakes and is discharged, and her husband is identical to the man who plays the admiral representing imperial forces in the scenes set in the past. And it all seems relatively straightforward, if somewhat confusing, with the past being a coma dream of the woman in the present, based on a testament from the time she had been reading… Except the film ends with the opening scene of  the executions, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s for a film being made by the woman’s husband and starring herself. It’s an interesting historical story, but the ham-fisted attempt to make it a time-slip romance – a well-established sub-genre in written romance fiction – actually makes it a more interesting film. As far as I can determine, given it has no real IMDB entry, and there’s almost no information about it available on the English-language internet, this is not a tentpole Chinese release, and either a straight to DVD or streaming-only movie. But I thought it quite good. The cast were good, the historical scenes convincing, and if the time-slip element was a little confusing it can’t be faulted for trying. Better than expected.

Detective Chinatown, Chen Sicheng (2015, China). And after watching the above, I stumbled on this – which at least has a Wikipedia entry – and since I was in the mood for Chinese cinema, and coincidentally eating Chinese food – although that later proved less than successful but we won’t go into that – and the thing about Chinese films is not so much that they’re Chinese but that they can have a Chinese approach to well-established film genres… And so their take on them can be just as entertaining as the film’s actual story. Here we have the “reluctant buddies” movie, with an incompetent cop teamed up with a brilliant assistant to solve a crime and, for added shits and giggles, the detective is trying to solve the crime of which he has himself been accused. It’s hardly a new story, it’s pretty much a universal one in fact. In this instance, failed police academy candidate and nerd Qin Feng has been sent to visit his successful uncle Tang Ren, a top detective in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Except Tang is nothing of the sort, but a low-life who works for a corrupt police sergeant. Except now he’s number one suspect for the murder of a member of a gold robbery gang. And the gold is still missing. So while Tang’s incompetent police sergeant is competing with a go-getter rival to solve the crime, Tang needs to clear his name and only geeky nephew Qin can do it. The film doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy or a thriller, which means the thriller elements are quite good but the comedy aspects feel forced. Which is a shame because Tang, played by Wang Biaoqang, is a good comedic character – so much so, the film often feels like a vehicle for him, which it isn’t. The final twist is unexpected but doesn’t substantially alter what’s gone before. If Detective Chinatown had been made in Hollywood, it would probably be typical Hollywood product, but the fact it’s Chinese and set in Bangkok, and its plot plays on elements of Chinese culture and society, makes it much more interesting than typical Hollywood product. There was a sequel titled, obviously, Detective Chinatown 2, this time set in New York.

Blind Mountain, Li Yang (1999, China). And yet another Chinese film, but a much more serious movie than the one above. Li is often lumped in with the Sixth Generation directors, but he doesn’t include himself in the group. Certainly, the topic, and approach to filming, of Blind Mountain has elements in common with some Sixth Generation directors’ movies. It covers a serious problem in China: the kidnap of women and their sale to remote villages as wives for single men. Huang Lu is offered a job in the north of China, which she accepts as her family has debts. But when she reaches a small village in the Qin Mountains, she is held captive and told by a man she is now married to his son. When she tries to run away, they beat her and then chain her leg to the bed. Her “husband” rapes her. She tries to escape several times, but each time is caught and beaten. One time, she even makes it as far as the nearest town, but is dragged off the bus to the city by her “husband” and no one intervenes, not even the police – because it is domestic. Eventually, she gets a message out and the police arrive. But even they prove mostly powerless against the ranked villagers… With the exception of Huang, the cast are non-professionals, in fact many are villagers from the villages in the area where the film was made. There are also two version to the movie – the international release, and the Chinese government-approved version which has a much “happier” ending. (I saw the former.) There is a great deal of astonishing scenery in China – including urban scenery – and Fifth and Sixth Generation directors make excellent use of it. As does Li here. The copy I saw wasn’t a great transfer, but the landscape cinematography was stunningly beautiful in places. The performances, despite being a mostly amateur cast, are strong, and the story is certainly one that needs to be told. Blind Mountain is the second in a loose trilogy. I’ve not seen the first, Blind Shaft, but I now plan to. And the third film, Blind Way, was supposed to be released last year but doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through or streaming yet. Li Yang is definitely a director whose career is worth following.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13’s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.