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Movie roundup 2020, #22

I ran out of TV series to box-set binge – well, TV series that interest me – and it occurred to me my Amazon Prime watchlist had reached three figures and I really should watch some of the movies on it… So I did. Not always with welcome results. But some of them turned out to be fun and/or interesting…

There were, however, a few TV series in among the movies. The BBC’s His Dark Materials continues to impress – I hope the BBC sorts out its political reporting soon, it’s a fucking disgrace. The Mandalorian is basically fan-fiction, and if I had any investment in the universe I’d probably be annoyed at the way it cherrypicks some parts of the canon and runs roughshod over others. Lovecraft Country was a pleasant surprise – good, but… seriously, how can you watch that and think the USA was ever great? No one said the UK wasn’t racist, but Brits never put burning crosses on people’s lawns. And I’m reminded of stories from WWII when UK villagers welcomed black American servicemen into their pubs, and even fought white US servicemen and MPs who tried to stop that. I spot anyone wearing a “MAGA” hat and all I see is someone wearing a “I am a massive racist” hat.

Moving quickly on… The “roundup” format seems to have failed, as I always write more than the intended sentence or two on the films I watch. I think I shall revert to my previous format next year.

Arianna, Carlo Lavagna (2015, Italy). A young woman in her late teens is troubled by her lack of menstruation. When on a summer holiday with her family, she experiences sex for the first time and she finds it too painful to consummate. She tries to find out why from her parents, but their claim it is a result of a childhood hernia are unconvincing. A doctor persuades her to access her records at the hospital where she was initially treated for the hernia, which she does through a subterfuge. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal what she discovers. She was born intersex, and her parents unilaterally decided to surgically transition her to female. By the end of the film, she admits she has yet to discover her gender but she feels she should have been given the choice. JK Rowling might like you to think gender is synonymous with sex, there are only two sexes, and everything else is post-millennial nonsense. But she’s wrong on every count – about sex, about gender, and about the expression of gender. Recently, a BBC dimwit clumsily compared her infamous TERF blog post to Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, and I’m fine with that – she’s proven herself just as intolerant and hateful as he ever did.

Run, Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia). The title in Czech is classic, Vrchni, prchni! Most languages only dream of such alliteration! The owner of a not entirely successful bookshop is mistaken for a waiter while popping into a restaurant for a bottle of wine while dressed for a party. He then decides to supplement his income by impersonating a waiter, visiting restaurants and taking money from customers who assume he actually works there. He even becomes notorious and has to disguise himself. This is a black comedy in the finest Middle European tradition, but it is also surprisingly funny. The protagonist is no paragon – he’s not only prospering from his fraud, but he’s also happily cheating on his wife. I really enjoyed it. Definitely worth seeing.

Warning from Space, Koji Shima (1956, Japan). I’m not sure on the exact term for these sorts of films. Tokusatsu, I believe, refers to live-action film or television that relies heavily on special effects, but most properties I’ve seen labelled as such the special effects have been focussed on the heroes. Warning from Space is the first Japanese sf film to be produced in colour, which only makes its characteristic weirdness, well, colourful. Aliens debate how to warn Earth of an imminent collision with a rogue planet, only for the usual paranoia and misunderstandings to jeopardise their efforts, before everything finally comes right in the end. Classic stuff. This is more the expression of an aesthetic than it is the telling of a coherent story, and it’s an aesthetic I have come to love. (Bizarrely, the Blu-ray edition I bought is apparently no longer available – more Brexit nonsense?)

Battle in Outer Space, Ishiro Honda (1959, Japan). And here is perhaps the perfect exponent of that aesthetic. Honda is best-known for his Gojira films, of which there were many, but he pioneered an expression of tokusatsu cinema which spread widely and continues to this day. The plots are mostly nonsense – as is this one – but, like Gerry Anderson and his productions, it’s all about the look and feel, and the models and concepts. I think this is the movie where they needed to film a rocket launch, but didn’t have enough room, so they dug a hole in the floor of the studio and were later fined for the damage. This is great stuff – absolute bonkers, resolutely science-fictional, often more representational than its Western peers, and while not entirely coherent as a story, more coherent as a genre, to an extent unmatched in the West until the rise of MCU and SWEU.

The Mystery of DB Cooper, John Dower (2020, USA). I have a sort of personal connection to this, although it is extremely tenuous. Back in 2015, I wrote an editorial for Interzone about the Hugo Awards and the Sad Puppies. This resulted in my favourite Amazon review of anything I have ever written: “Starts off with long winded political diatribe in the slanted style of the basest 9/11 Truther, you can almost feel the spittle from the editor’s shouting as he hammers at the keyboard, surrounded by vintage Soviet propaganda posters and little shrines to Trotsky and Marx.” The review was apparently by DB Cooper. Of course, the real culprit was some moronic puppy (they’re not very bright… Well, they are right-wingers, so it goes with ideology), but it did introduce me to the whole myth of DB Cooper, the only unsolved air hijacking in US history. Which this documentary sort of attempts to solve. In 1971, a man using the name DB Cooper hijacked an internal US flight, demanded $200,000 and parachuted out of the aircraft with the money somewhere in Washington state. He was never caught, nor the money found. Over the years, four people have claimed responsibility or been identified as responsible. This film covers the details of all four’s claims, without actually explaining which is the most likely culprit. Mildly interesting stuff – certainly an education in how different air travel, particularly internal US air travel, was at that time, and how easy the crime was, not to mention the incompetence of the FBI. But this is not even a footnote in history, and any claim it’s US mythology is giving it far more importance than it deserves… which is no doubt why it’s popular among the intellectually-challenged right-wing.

Mortal, André Øvredal (20202, Norway). An odd film that does some interesting thing but is chiefly notable for looking extremely pretty while doing very little. A young man from the US visits Norway to look up ancestors. He is involved in a fire in a northern farm, and then blamed for the deaths of whose who died in it. An incident brings him to the attention of a local police chief, who arrests him. A local psychologist interviews him, and is horrified by what she discovers – he can apparently cause fires and electric shocks. But she helps him escape – from a vengeful and thinly-drawn US government agent – and eventually leads him to discover who he really is. Thor’s sons, apparently, settled down on a farm after Ragnarok, and kept with them all the knowledge of the Æsir, and guess who the American is descended from… Not a bad film. It made a good fist of its premise, provided an interesting twist in the end, and included some gorgeous cinematography of Norwegian scenery. Worth seeing.

Enola Holmes, Harry Bradbeer (2020, USA). This is pretty much a star vehicle for UK actress Millie Bobby Brown, who appears to be some kind of wunderkind (she’s sixteen), has won awards, been deemed one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine, and appointed as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Excellent stuff; more power to her. The film is based on a YA series of six books by Nancy Springer, a US fantasy author with a long career, some of whose books I’ve read, although I only remember Larque on the Wing, an urban fantasy in which a fortysomething woman is transformed into a young gay man. Anyway, Enola Holmes is the young sister of, yes, you guessed it, Sherlock and Mycroft. But the film is set before the brothers became really famous. Their mother disappears, and Enola sets off to learn her fate. It’s all very jolly, and the breaking of the fourth wall works well, but Enola seems a bit shit as a heroine and has to be constantly rescued, which does sort of undermine the whole empowering message. I’d have preferred Enola to have been a more effective character and the story to rely less – when it remembers its story, that is – on the teenage aristocratic drip whose single vote (yes, really) could change Britain for the better or bring it closer to Gammonland, that mythical country in which ignorant bald-headed white men consider themselves the superior of all except over-privileged and over-educated nincompoop gentry, which of course is not reciprocated, and everyone else thinks of the two groups as first against the wall should the revolution ever come. Bit harsh perhaps for a piece of Edwardian-set YA fluff, but Millie Bobby Brown needs better vehicles than this.

Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach (2019, UK). No one expects a Ken Loach to be cheerful, but this one was grimmer than many I’ve seen. Perhaps because it’s set in Tory Britain. No, wait… A Mancunian, living in the north-east with wife (a carer) and two teenage kids, takes a job as a delivery driver for a courier. The courier industry comes in for a lot of stick in the UK, and if this film is any indication it needs to be burned to the ground and rebuilt from scratch. It is as bad as Uber. And Uber are scum. The company in the film does not employ drivers, it offers franchises to people who own vans. Which means the company has no obligations to its “employees”. As is abundantly made clear in this film. Everyone who defended the business model used by the delivery company was basically trotting out the same shit peddled by the SS. True, this is a movie – but it’s not that different to many people’s reality in the UK. Like the zero-hours contracts and corruption of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You is a heart-breaking and rage-inducing drama-documentary based on the rentier class’s exploitation – of the “white van man”, in this instance. It needs to stop. And those who profit from it should be prosecuted. Do not watch this film unless you’re in a good mood. Because you won’t be when you finish it. And, sadly, going out and taking a baseball to your local capitalist is frowned upon by the law.

Woke Up Like This, John Elbert Ferrer (2017, Philippines). I commented on Facebook while watching this that body swap comedies have yet to produce a good movie, and while there may be a handful of borderline examples, this one from the Philippines pretty much proves the point. It takes the genre’s most obvious example – a basketball player and a top model swap bodies. I forget the mechanism. And to be honest, I forget what life lessons either of them were meant to learn. The comedy mostly lies in them trying to come to terms with their new identity. And, er, that’s it. Yes, they become better people as a result, but it’s a bit much expecting such a drastic transformation not to cause change when the words, “You’re being a fucking arsehole”, should be equally effective. Although, to be fair, not as comedic. I’m aware Pinoy – in terms of cinema – is pretty much lowest common denominator film-making, and few Filipino films make it west – but the country has produced some excellent movies and nurtured some excellent directors. Sadly, Woke Up Like This belongs in neither category. A substandard comedy that Hollywood only manages to beat because it has better production values.

Sam, Nicholas Brooks (2017, USA). And here’s a variation on the same story, and this is, I think, its third cinematic outing. A misogynist wakes up as a woman and learns life lessons. There was a play called Goodbye Charlie, which first appeared in 1959, and adapted for the cinema by Vincente Minelli in 1964 under the same title, and which I like quite a bit (it has a good cast), and later remade as Switch in 1991, which I do not like so much at all. Unfortunately, Sam is much much worse than either of those. An ad exec, who is is a throwback to the 1970s, meets Stacy Keach in a mysterious curio shop while staggering home drunk from a stag party, is fed some strange tea… and wakes up the following morning as a woman. The story runs on well-oiled rails, so well-oiled that nothing is surprising or dramatic except the misogyny in the first two acts of this, a twenty-first century film. People are not like that any more, except perhaps in weird backward pockets of the US or UK, so the entire story fails because it’s less believable than The Last Jedi. It doesn’t help the production is cheap, the cast nobodies, and the humour at least three decades out of date. Nicholas Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks. It seems trickle-down theory is just as much bullshit with talent as it is in economics.


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The best of the half-year: 2012

It’s halfway through 2012, and it must be shaping up to be one of the wettest years on record in the UK. But that’s okay because my hobbies are chiefly indoor ones – reading books, watching films and listening to music. I occasionally do a bit of writing too. But, since we’re in June, with around six months to go until the end of the year, it’s time to look back and determine what was the best of what I read, watched and heard in 2012. And it goes something like this…

Words
I seem to have read a lot of books that were good without being great; and possibly a larger number of books that weren’t good at all. Picking the best five proved harder than expected, though one or two titles were obvious…

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011). Jones has been my favourite writer for many years, so this collection’s appearance on the top five is no surprise. I had, in fact, read most of the stories in The Universe of Things before (I even published one; sort of), but rereading them only cemented my admiration of them. Jones has not written many stories, but there are no clunkers among them. This collection is an excellent introduction to her fiction. I wrote a review of the book for Daughters of Prometheus.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008). I’ve long admired Evans’ fiction, but he seemed to stop writing after 1995’s Mortal Remains… until Omega four years ago. I won’t say it was worth the wait, because it’s never good when a writer whose books you enjoy and admire disappears for more than a decade. But certainly Omega is a good book, a clever alternate history dimension-slip thriller partly set in a world where World War II continued on throughout the twentieth century. I wrote about Omega on my blog here.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987). This year for my reading challenge I decided to read books by non-Anglophone writers I’d never read before. The Door was the second book I read for the challenge, and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the challenge has got a little bogged down of late – I failed to finish March’s book, read April’s book late, and have yet to even start May’s. Anyway, I wrote about The Door on my blog here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963). I read the first book of the Raj Quartet for one of my reading challenges, and thought the book was superb. As a result, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I track down to read. In first edition. The Bender predates the Raj Quartet and is not as weighty as those four books. It’s a very 1960s comedy, but also a beautifully witty one. I wrote about it on my blog here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994). I’m surprised this book isn’t better known. It’s an amazingly-put-together series of stories which form a much greater story. It opens with a series of Victorian travellers, trapped on a train by snow, who tell each other stories… and then proceeds to unravel and then stitch together the stories told by those travellers. There’s a superb take-down of a cult semiotician, a clever spoof of the Scottish detective programme Taggart, and a brilliant pastiche of Jeffrey Archer. Perhaps the links between the stories aren’t quite strong enough to carry the story-arc, but Betrayals is a very clever, very amusing, and excellent novel.

Honourable mentions go to Eastermodern by Herta Hurnaus, Oscar Niemeyer Houses by Alan Weintraub and Building Brasilia by Marcel Gautherot, which are books of photographs of modernist and brutalist buildings. Niemeyer’s work perfectly encapsulates the future we could have had, and all cities should resemble Brasilia. Also worthy of note are How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which every writer and critic should read; Alias Grace, which is probably Margaret Atwood’s best novel; and Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place by Malcolm Lowry, a collection by an author new to me which contains some excellent novellas and some not so interesting short stories.

Pictures
I’ve already visited the cinema twice so far this year, which is something of a record for me. One of the films I saw in IMAX 3D makes it onto my top five; the other one was rubbish, so it doesn’t. The other films I’ve seen were all on DVD – some borrowed, some bought, and some rented.

Red Psalm (Még kér a nép), Miklós Janscó (1972). I bought this after seeing a review of the DVD in Sight & Sound. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t a group of hippie-looking Hungarians wandering around a farm spouting socialist rhetoric and singing folk songs, and then getting shot at by soldiers. I loved it. I wrote about Red Psalm on my blog here.

Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), Michelangelo Antonioni (1964). I’ve admired Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura several years ago. Red Desert was his first film in colour, and it shows – it’s an amazingly painterly film. Unlike in most films, the characters do not over-shadow their world but are very much a part of it. It creates a distance between viewer and cast, but there’s an immersive quality to the mise en scène which renders that of little importance. Films don’t need viewer analogues – that’s just confining the medium to the simplicity of oral storytelling: films use images just like books use words, and that’s where their focus should lie. I wrote about Red Desert on my blog here.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків), Sergei Parajanov (1965). I watched Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates last year. That film is perhaps the zenith of “poetical cinema”, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is definitely a way-station on the climb to it. It is, on the face of it, a simple story of one young man’s trials and tribulations. He is a member of Ukrainian Hutsul culture, and the film is rich with its costumes, music and traditions. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is by no means an easy film to watch, however, as it operates on so many levels – but it at least has a coherent plot, which is more than can be said for The Colour of Pomegranates.

On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie), Andrzej Żuławski (1978/1988). If you can imagine a film that out-Tarkovskys Solaris, then you might have some idea of what On the Silver Globe is like. It’s based on a trilogy of novels published in Poland in 1911 by Jerzy Żuławski, which have apparently never been translated into English. On the strength of this film, they should be. It’s probably evident that I’m not a huge fan of traditional Hollywood-style cinema; it often feels to me like a waste of the medium’s potential. And yet films such as Red Psalm and On the Silver Globe, with their declarative dialogue, often feel like they’re only partway to what film could truly be. I like the painterly mise en scène of poetical cinema, but often find the declarative dialogue as clumsy as science fiction’s crude use of exposition. And so it is in On the Silver Globe – characters run around and gurn at the camera, and then speechify on the meaning of life. However, it’s in the story and the imagery that the film really impresses – enough, in fact, to offset the fact the film was never completed – much like Andrzej Munk’s Passenger. The Polish Ministry of Culture closed down the production of On the Silver Globe when the film was only 80% complete. It was ten years before Żuławski returned to it, and then he could only complete it by using stock footage and voice-over for some parts. It works surprisingly well. I plan to write more about On the Silver Globe on this blog.

John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). John Carter received a mauling at the US box office, so much so it was officially declared a flop by its studio, Disney. Happily, the world outside the US had more discerning taste and went to see the film in sufficient numbers for it to eventually turn a profit. But the profitability of a film is measured solely on its performance at the US box office – which is both dumb and parochial – so it’s unlikely a sequel to John Carter will ever be made. Which is a shame. John Carter was a spectacle, with a clever script that managed to make something twenty-first century of its early twentieth-century source material. It had its flaws – some longeurs, and an inelegant info-dump to explain the plot – but other parts more than made up for it. I wrote more about it on my blog here.

Honourable mentions go to , Federico Fellini (1962), which after seeing La Dolce Vita many years ago and disliking it, I had expected to hate – I didn’t; I loved it. Troll Hunter, André Øvredal (2010), was another deadpan Norwegian spoof and cleverly done, though not quite as good as Norwegian Ninja. The Third Part of the Night, Andrzej Żuławski (1971), was the first Żuławski I saw, and it’s off-the-wall Hitchcockian style appealed to me greatly (as did Andrzej Korzyñski’s superb soundtrack). Went the Day Well?, Cavalcanti (1942), was a surprisingly brutal piece of wartime propaganda in which a German fifth column try to conquer a small English village. It goes badly. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec, Luc Besson (2010), gets a mention as an entertaining adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s bande dessinée, and though it’s completely silly it was great fun. Finally, some quality telly: Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), which has not dated at all, and is still great entertainment despite being completely bonkers; and Caprica (2010), which promised so much more than it ever got the chance to deliver.

Sounds
I knew from early this year that 2012 was going to be good for music. Perhaps few of my favourite bands are releasing albums, or touring the UK, but I’ve stumbled across some bands new to me that have been on almost constant play on the iPod.

Dwellings, Cormorant (2011). The band self-released this last year and it’s a powerful mélange of half a dozen metal genres. I loved it from the first listen, and even went back and got copies of their earlier two albums.

The Devil’s Resolve, Barren Earth (2012). This is the superband’s second album, and it’s a heavier and yet proggier effort than their first. The riffs are not quite as memorable as they are on The Curse of the Red River, but the lead breaks are much more impressive, and the proggy break-outs even stranger. Opeth’s Heritage proved there was a market for 1970s-inspired weird Scandinavian prog, and Barren Earth have taken that and melded it with Scandinavian death/doom to create a winning combination.

The Weight of Oceans, In Mourning (2012). I saw a review of this and it sounded appealing, so I ordered a copy from a Finnish website. It’s death/doom in that way the Finns do so well, but with added slow modern progginess. It’s not proggy like Barren Earth is proggy, inasmuch its acoustic parts feel more of a piece with the heavy parts. I’ve been playing it constantly since it arrived.

Nostalgia, Gwynbleidd (2009). Another band I came across mention of and who I thought I might like. So I bought the album. And yes, I do like them. Very much. They’re a sort of mix between Opeth and Northern Oak, but also not much like either. There are long sustained death metal parts, interspersed with folky acoustic guitar, and it all hangs together exceedingly well.

Legacy, Hypnos 69 (2010). I’ve been a fan of Hypnos 69 since hearing their The Intrigue of Perception several years ago. I’s taken me a while to get hold of Legacy, chiefly because it was released by a small label in Germany and wasn’t available in the UK. Recently I discovered it was on bandcamp, so I bought it from there. It’s Hypnos 69 doing Hypnos 69-type stuff, and I love it.

Honourable mentions go to Finnish death metallers (Psychoparalysis), who have self-released three excellent EPs; Weather Systems by Anathema (2012), which I much prefer to the previous album; Wood 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light by Woods of Ypres, which is folky black metal that sounds a little like Type O Negative in places  and includes strings and oboe; and finally, All Spawns, a recent compilation of Czech death metal pioneers Apalling Spawn’s two released from the late 1990s (now, if I can only find a copy of the Sparagmos compilation, I’ll be really happy…).