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Moving pictures 2017, #29

Another mixed bag, including some films I didn’t expect to like but did, and some I expected to like but didn’t…

The Wedding, Andrzej Wajda (1972, Poland). I find Wajda a bit and miss, to be honest. I really like both Man of Marble and Man of Iron, but didn’t take to Ashes and Diamonds. Two of those films are in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets, along with Innocent Sorcerors, Promised Land and… The Wedding. That’s quite a showing, out of twenty-four films. I suspect some of Wajda’s films require several watchings, and The Wedding is one of them. As the title, er, informs, it’s set at a wedding, in 1900 in Kraków, between a middle-class poet and his peasant fiancée. The film is apparently based on a play by Stanisław Wyspiański, and is concerned chiefly with the history of Poland, particularly how it relates to class. The play is apparently held in high regard – and Wajda has also directed the play, it seems – but some of the reviews I’ve seen online of Wajda’s film are less complimentary – although the non-Polish reviews seem uniformly approving. The play has rhyming dialogue, but Wajda dispenses with it for the film, although many lines spoken by the cast use a lot of poetic imagery. As everyone at the wedding gets more pissed, so they start to see apparitions which represent people and incidents from Polish history. In 1900, Poland didn’t exist as a nation, as it was occupied by Russia, Austria and Prussia, and it would not regain its independence until The Treaty of Versailles in 1918. The Wedding takes place at a time when an uprising might have happened – The Wedding partly symbolises the inability of the intelligentsia and peasants to work together. The film has an externsive cast, and crams a lot into its 106 minutes. It doesn’t feel at all stagey, chiefly because Wajda films several important scenes outdoors (I don’t know how the play handles them). But even the interior scenes feel very cinematographic, as Wajda uses close-ups, zoom shots and pull back shots. The Wedding was definitely a film that improved on a second viewing. I’ll probably have to watch it again sometime.

The Eye of Silence, Emmanuel Sapolsky (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime, and the synopsis sounded reasonably interesting so I sat down to watch it. Amèlie is a young Chinese woman in Beijing, who enjoys going out clubbing with her friend Coco. They’re both beautiful and looking for a good time. Coco already has a boyfriend, a young and rich property developer. Amèlie makes her living pretending to be French – she lived in France and speaks the language – for a friend who scams companies looking for overseas investment. Amèlie also has extremely sensitive vision and can see in the dark – but she has to wear sunglasses in the light. At a party thrown by Coco’s boyfriend, Coco goes into a diabetic coma and then dies while being raped by the boyfriend and his friends. Even though the lights are out, Amèlie witnesses this, but she doesn’t know what to do. Sapolsky is, I think, a French director, and Xin Wang, the actress who plays Amèlie, has appeared in a couple of his projects – including Ex-Model a series of webisodes about a Chinese fashion model in Paris who discovers she is too old (at thirty) to get more work. They’re also available on Amazon Prime and are quite amusing. Xin Wang is a face to watch, and while the seeing-in-the-dark thing is an important plot-point – it makes her witness to the crime without the perpetrators realising it, and leads to a somewhat bathetic ending – it does feel a bit unnecessary. The Eye of Silence is clearly a star vehicle for Xin Wang, but she’s very good so that’s no problem. Worth watching.

Songs from the Second Floor, Roy Andersson (2000, Sweden). The night before I flew out to Sweden for a convention, I decided to watch something Swedish. As you do. And I found this film on Amazon Prime, which seemed to have added a number of good films in the week or two prior (including the one above). However, I’m not sure Songs from the Second Floor was a good choice of film to put me in a Swedish frame of mind as it was fucking weird as shit. It’s a series of vignettes, all of which are completely depressing, are played totally deadpan, and in which the cast wear white face make-up that makes them look like cadavers. It makes Finnish films look like the Marx Brothers. The vignettes sort of interlock, inasmuch as characters move through them while also having their own stories. In one, a man who has just been fired, clings to the leg of his boss, and is dragged begging for a second chance along the corridor. In another, a man on a subway train carries a bag full of burnt paper. A naval officer gets into a taxi which is stuck in traffic, even though he is late for an important funeral. The film has a very washed-out look, which does everyone the appearance of warmed-over corpses, but given that it’s a mordant commentary on modern life, it’s quite effective. It presents a different character of black humour to that of films from other nations I’ve seen, more absurd and surreal, I think, than, say, Finnish black-comedies. And less cataclysmic than Polish ones. I’m not sure I liked it, but I think I’ll probably have a go at the two “sequels”, You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Performance*, Nicolas Roeg (1970, UK). I think I had the wrong idea about this film in my head prior to watching it. Because when it opened as a mockney gangaster flick, with James Fox as a dapper but psycho enforcer for a London gang boss, I wondered if I were watching the right movie. But after Fox pisses off his boss and is forced to go on the run, he ends up hiding out in the house of retired rock star Turner (played by Jagger), and the film I’d been expecting began to manifest. But there was little in it, I thought, to justify a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. As an ultra-violent film with flashes of surrealism, it predated Pete Travis’s Dredd by several decades, but didn’t seem to add anything to either ultra-violent films of its time or surrealist movies. But then the film reached ‘Memo from Turner’, almost a promo video, performed by Jagger, and the whole film went up a level. That happens sometimes: a film is mostly meh, and then something happens to cause you re-appraise what you’ve just watched. Performance still feels like a so-so 1970s British gangster film, and I couldn’t decide if Jagger was actually acting or not (as in, he wasn’t that bad, and he’s usually a terrible actor), but the ‘Memo from Turner’ sequence was really good, and if only for that I think better of this film than I otherwise would.

The Green Ray, Éric Rohmer (1986, France). Among the people I know who actually know who Rohmer is – and it’s a small number of people – The Green Ray is generally proffered as Rohmer’s best film. So I was surprised to find it so disappointing. Rohmer’s films are very talky, but this one seemed even more so than others I remembered. Perhaps I expected too much of it. But his films also tackle thorny moral situations and problems, and YMMV almost certainly given those subjects. In The Green Ray, a young woman’s relationship has just ended, and her holidays planned are torpedoed when her travelling companion pulls out. She joins a beach party, but she’s the only single person there and doesn’t fit in (I know that feeling). She bounces around Europe, looking for a companion but unwilling to engage in the sort of mindless mating games people use when looking for one-night stands (I know that feeling too). You’d think, with Rohmer tackling a situation with which I can sympathise, I’d like The Green Ray more than I did. But Delphine, the main character, felt a little too flat to be sympathetic, and perhaps the over-reliance on dialogue told against the film. Also, when I think of the Rohmer films I like – Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach – the emotional problem which forms the core of the film feels stronger and a more powerful engine for the plot. The Green Ray – a reference to both Verne’s novel of the same name, and the near-mythical green flash sometimes seen at sunset – feels at times as unfocused as Delphine’s holiday plans. I still like Rohmer’s films, and am happy to work my way through his oeuvre, and I suspect The Green Ray is going withstand a rewatch much better than some of his other films… One of these days I’ll have to see if I can pick up a DVD collection of his movies; there are several available.

The Holy Mountain, Arnold Fanck (1926, Germany). I had thought Leni Reifenstahl – of Triumph of the Will fame – had directed this, but it turns out she was its star, not its director. She plays a dancer who falls in love with a mountaineer, but then he gets jealous when she gives one of her scarves to one of his friends, leading the friend to believe she loves him and the mountaineer to think she has betrayed him. The film makes much of the fact its mountaineering scenes were actually filmed in the mountains and not faked up in a studio, and, while there are plenty that were certainly filmed on location, a pivotal scene in which the mountaineer has to hold his friend all night after he’d fallen off a cliff does look a bit like it was done in a studio. About all I can remember from the film is the dancing scenes (bad) and the climbing scenes (good). If the film was sold on its location shooting, it at least did a good job on it. The story – boy meets, girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again after much difficulty – may not have been all that original, and Reifenstahl as an actress has nothing like Louise Brooks’s on-screen charisma, and the film does not go somewhat off-piste towards the end (leading to the film’s title)… but I did enjoy it. And while silent films require a different viewing protocol to “talkies”, I’ve seen aneough them now to appreciate how it’s done. And some silent films, in fact, I’ve thought absolutely blinding. Worth seeing, but probably not worth a rewatch.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 866

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Moving pictures 2017, #21

Six films from six different countries, which is quite good… and even the US one is not that embarrassing. Honestly.

Dances with Wolves*, Kevin Costner (1990, USA), Yes, unbelievably, I’d never seen Dances with Wolves. Since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I’d always planned to watch it, but I had it as low priority on one of my rental lists. But then I found a copy for a quid in a charity shop… I’d been expecting a revisionist Western and, yes, that’s very much what it is… but not precisely in the way I’d expected. Costner plays a monomaniacal Cavalry officer who insists on being assigned to the furthest outpost in US territory. Shortly after settling alone there, he encounters his neighbours, a village of Lakota Indians. He visits them in the interest of peaceful relations, and gradually learns their language. He also marries a Lakota widow. But then the US Army turns up, and decides Costner is a traitor because he has gone “native”. Unfortunately, there is such a mass of cultural material generated by the US in which the Native Americans are painted as villainous savages, and the white Americans as noble pioneers, that it’ll be centuries before the US truly accepts it committed racial genocide on all the cultures which shared the North American continent prior to their arrival. So, really, we shouldn’t be calling these films “revisionist” because they depict the Lakota as actual human beings and the occupying white Americans as vicious scumbags, because that’s probably much closer to the truth than the genre usually reckons. It is also fucking shameful that science fiction bases so many of its narratives on stories of Western pioneers and their so-called courage and fortitude in colonising distant territory, when it was usually their advanced weaponry and duplicity that won the day. Dances with Wolves was not a great film, although it won a huge raft of awards, but it was a lot better than I’d expected it to be. I actually quite enjoyed it.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962, Russia). This was a rewatch, prompted by me upgrading my Tarkovsky DVDs (which went to a good home) to Blu-rays. Ivan’s Childhood was Tarkovsky’s first feature film for a studio. The title refers to a boy who becomes a runner for the Red Army on the Eastern Front during WWII. There’s a scene in the film which captures me every time: Ivan has just arrived at an outpost, and the commanding lieutenant is not sure what to make of him, despite the boy’s claim to importance. At Ivan’s insistence, the officer rings headquarters and is properly humbled. He then offers the boy a hot bath. Evereyone who meets Ivan wants to do right by him, which by their lights means sending him to school and officer training. But he wants to stay at the front, directly contributing to the war effort. To be honest, there’s not much on this Blu-ray release which justifies the upgrade – it’s a bloody good film, if not Tarkovsky’s best, there’s the rest of his oeuvre to compete for that, and to be honest I can’t say it looks better on Blu-ray than on DVD because it’s a fifty-five-year-old film. Upgrading was a no-brainer – Tarkovsky is one of the best directors ever – and if it’s prompted me to rewatch his films (again), then it’s done more than intended. In fact, I now want to watch them again again.

The Milk of Sorrow, Claudia Llosa (2009, Peru). My first film from Peru. And a female director too. (Incidentally, I’ve started tracking the gender of the directors whose films I watch now, but it’s embarrassingly male-heavy at present.) The Milk of Sorrow takes place in an area occupied by indigenous people – Quechua is spoken during the film more than Spanish, in fact – and the title refers to a belief that women who were abused or raped transmit their feelings through their milk to their female children. The film follows a young woman who is accused of suffering from this as she tries to avoid her mother’s fate. I had not come across Llosa before encountering this film – which was pretty much a random Peruvian film picked because I’d never seen a film from that country – but on the strength of The Milk of Sorrow I want to see more by Llosa. (And so I did, as it turns out The Milk of Sorrow was a two-disc set with Llosa’s Madeinusa, which will be covered in a later Moving pictures post). Some films are just good; some films are good and you want other people to watch them. Many of the recent Chinese films I’ve seen fall into that later category. As does The Milk of Sorrow. Highly recommended.

Innocent Sorcerers, Andrzej Wajda (1960, Poland). Another from the second Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. I’ve yet to get a handle on Wajda’s output – I really like Man of Marble and Man of Iron, although the latter feels more like a teleplay than a feature film; and the latter is also in the first box set of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which is good as it’s apparently not available in the UK, to go with the Second Run DVD release I have of Man of Marble; but I was not all that taken with his best-known film, Ashes and Diamonds. In other words, I pretty much have to take each Wajda film as I find them. And this one was… fun, in a sort of 1960s black-and-white-jazz-soundtrack sort of way. A bit like a John Cassavetes film but more to my taste. There’s a young doctor with improbably blond hair, and a young man in sunglasses who looks like the protagonist of Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s all very New Wave, but filtered through a very Polish lens. As previously mentioned it’s a lot like Cassavetes’s films but also completely unlike them – it feels more polished for a start, less reliant on ensemble acting, with a bit more Godard in its DNA than Cassavetes was wont to show. The films suffers from unsympathetic characters – but then so do Cassavetes’s films – and very little happens during its 87 minutes. It’s considered an oddity in Wajda’s oeuvre, and it’s easy to understand why. Worth watching, but lacking something that might make it a film worth remembering.

Day for Night*, François Truffaut (1973, France). I had to buy a copy of this as it’s apparently not available for rental from either LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso. But it turned out to be an excellent film, so never mind. (It was also very cheap.) Truffaut plays a director making a film in the south of France starring a British movie star, played by Jacqueline Bisset. The entire movie is a series of in-jokes about movie-making, and the personalities involved, and it works really well. My attitude to Truffaut’s films is definitely improving. There are some great set-pieces in Day for Night, especially the one with the cat, and the cast are thoroughly convincing in their roles. The alcoholic dowager actress is fun, and the various relationships which develop among the cast and crew are amusing. Apparently, Graham Greene was an admirer of Truffaut and scored himself a walk-on part as an insurance agent. Truffaut, who admired Greene’s writing, only found out later that one of the insurance agents was Greene. As meta-cinema goes, it’s all a bit obvious – and was obvious in 1973, Vertov did it fifty years earlier with Man with a Movie Camera, for example – and some of the jokes were clearly at Hollywood’s expense, but it all seemed so genial, rather than than génial, and Bisset’s depiction of a fragile actress seemed just right for her role in the film and the “film”. My third favourite Truffaut so far.

Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China). Yet more Chinese cinema. I’ve yet to see any evidence to contradict my claim that China currently has one of the strongest cinemas of any nation. Admittedly, I’m seeing the films which get international releases, and not the purely domestic stuff, but China has a stable of amazing directors, active from the mid-1990s onwards, who have produced some of the best films of the past ten or so years. Which is not to say there are not some excellent historical films – I’m a big fan of Spring in a Small Town (1948), and The Goddess (1934) is also very good. Suzhou River is an earlier work, inasmuch as it was released at the turn of the century, and it shows a bit in its MTV-style cutting, but it’s still an excellent film. It also takes an interesting approach to narrative, opening with a voiceover in which the narrator explains how he came to love a young woman who plays a mermaid in a Shanghai bar. It then tells the story of Mardar and Moudan, a courier who ferries a rich man’s daughter about town, before being forced to kidnap her… Years later, Mardar returns to Shanghai, and stumbles across the mermaid, who he thinks is Moudan. There is, as previously mentioned, a few too many MTV-style jump-cuts, but in all other respects this is a very good Sixth Generation movie. I’ve found myself buying several of the Chinese films I’ve watched on rental after seeing them, and I think I’ll be looking for a copy of this one too. (Damn, I just went and bought one on eBay for a tenner.)

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 860


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Moving pictures 2017, #15

More of the usual – China, Poland. France and Russia. I’m still trying to expand the nations whose films I watch, but I do have my favourite directors…

The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). I’ve been a fan of Jia’s films since first seeing A Touch of Sin, and if the films in Jia’s Hometown trilogy seemed a little disappointing – see here and here and here – something in the description of The World persuaded me it was closer to 24 City and A Touch of Sin and so more likely to appeal. I bought the eureka! dual edition. And so it was – much more like 24 City and A Touch of Sin, I mean. In fact, I think it might be my favourite of Jia’s films. The main character of The World, although any such description is a hostage to fortune in this film, works as “talent” at a Beijing amusement park. The movies opens with her walking along a corridor, demanding loudly if any of her fellow co-workers have a band-aid (plaster). We then see her on stage, as part of some sort of dance routine, with other women in variations on national costume from assorted nations. And Jia mantains that sort of documentary feel to the rest of the movie, as he follows the young woman through the days that follow. There’s no plot as such, just men and women interacting in a weird artificial environment – which is only enhanced by the beautifully sharp cinematography and the strange, but natural, if slightly washed-out, colour palette. It feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot during the making of a film, but it’s never entirely clear what the story of that film is. There’s the central character, and her relations with her colleagues; and then a friend from her province turns up and she has to look after him. We also see women being abused by a system set up to exploit them – the theme park hires some Russian dancers, for example, and their handler takes their passports, and so traps them in China (a not uncommon practice in many parts of the world). Over it all is a layer of strangeness imparted by the easily recognisable, but small-scale, landmarks which populate the theme park – the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Manhattan skyline, etc.. And several parts of the film that are animated. I really liked A Touch of Sin on first seeing it, and liked it a great deal more on rewatching it several months later. But The World I loved the first time I watched it, and I’ve seen a couple of times since and still love it. I think this film has jumped into my top ten, but I’ve yet to figure out what to displace. Recommended.

Constant Factor, Krzysztof Zanussi (1980, Poland). I’m not entirely sure precisely what the factor the title refers to, although the plot of the film seems relatively straightforward. A young man joins a firm and discovers that his honesty is a handicap rather than an advantage. He dreams of climbing Mount Everest, an ambition which killed his father. For some reason, his employer sends him on overseas jobs even though he’s done nothing to “earn” the privilege. But when he turns down routine opportunities for corruption, and then refuses to back down and so jeopardises a lucrative contract, his ability to travel is taken from him. And that includes his planned trip to the Himalayas. He gets to the airport and they won’t let him leave the country. The film works because the protagonist is sympathetic, despite his pigheaded honesty – or perhaps because of his pigheaded honesty – after all, it’s not as if his co-workers are depicted as venal and corrupt… They’re just trying to make ends meet in a system that rewards corruption better than it rewards honesty. So, just like Western society then. There is, like some of the other films in this box set, a sort of televisual drama drama – kitchen-sink drama, even – feel to the film, so much so it’s starting to feel like a Polish speciality (Kieślowski, after all, started out in television). The three Martin Scorcese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets are proving to be an excellent purchase, despite the cost.

Little Red Flowers, Zhang Yuan (2006, China). I think Zhang was one of a number Chinese directors I stuck on my rental list in an effort to explore the country’s recent cinema, but I don’t recall where I came across Zhang’s name – and LoveFilm has recently got into the habit of sending me films from a particular country one after the other. So after a run of Romanian films, it’s now a run of Chinese films. This is no real hardship – of all the countries’ cinemas I’ve been watching over the past couple of years, China’s since the late 1990s has to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest. Particularly the Sixth Generation directors and later… Little Red Flowers is a not very sympathetic film, but extremely well put-together. It follows a four-year-old boy – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Wang Shuo – at a… boarding school? orphanage? The title refers to the school’s equivalent of “gold stars”, awarded for good work. The regime is pretty brutal for young kids, and the facilities primitive at best. I don’t recall Little Red Flowers being an especially comfortable film to watch, and I was unsure if its message was one of accommodation or staying true in a regime that saw your values as subversive. There’s a greater lesson there, of course, but I’m not sure this film is the best vehicle for it. A good film, and worth seeing – but more, I think, because it’s a good example of what China’s Sixth Generation of directors can offer than because the films offers more than its story.

Promised Land, Andrzej Wajda (1975, Poland). I know Wajda’s name as one of Polish cinemas big names, and I’ve seen several of his more celebrated films, but this was, I’d believed, one of his less celebrated, albeit still highly regarded, movies. And besides, I’ve not yet found cause to fault the choices made by these Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – okay, where’s the Szulkin, eh? I’ll forgive the lack of Żuławski given that Mondo Vision are doing special edition rereleases of his oeuvre, and they’re pretty hard to beat –  but the films I’ve seen before which appear in these box sets I’d already categorised as excellent films… and those I’ve not seen are proving to be every bit as good. So a wise purchase all round, then. Anyway, Promised Land is an historical piece, set at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. Three men – a Pole, a German and a Jew (interesting that his nationality seems irrelevant) – all invest in a new textile factory. Their backgrounds prove important, especially when the Pole has an affair with the wife of a Jewish financier. The factory they financed is burnt to the ground. They lose everything. But the Pole bounces back by marrying an heiress. It’s very much a story of three ambitious young men from different backgrounds pooling their resources, only to find their success treats them differently. The historical aspect wasn’t entirely convincing at times – the eixigencies of filming in 1970s Poland, no doubt – and ssome of the characters were a little larger than life… But this was good stuff. I do like Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron a great deal, possibly because they feel like teleplays, and was not that taken with his Ashes and Diamonds… but Promised Land occupies that uneasy middle ground. A quality film, certainly, but I still need to see more of Wajda’s oeuvre.

Taurus, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). After describing Francofonia (see here) as an archetypal Sokurov film – as if there were such a thing! – I watched Taurus, the second of Sokurov’s Power trilogy… and this was almost pure Sokurov cinema. For reasons I do not understand, the first and third films of the trilogy, Moloch and The Sun, were given US/UK releases on DVD (the fourth too, if you include Faust, which some do), but Taurus never was. And having now watched it I can see no good reason why it should have been ignored. The BFI have done excellent jobs on the oeuvres of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but if they’re looking for other directors to cover then Aleksandr Sokurov should be top of their list. Whatever. I managed to get hold of a copy of Taurus, and I watched it. And it’s pure Sokurov. It depicts the last days of Lenin, who, surprisingly, died at the age of 54 after only a year in power. In the film he is recuperating from his first stroke, and after his recovery meets with Stalin – who pretended to a favouritism by Lenin that never existed – but later succumbs to another stroke. The palette is subdued blues and very painterly, and if there’s one sour note it’s that Lenin has a younger body than his face suggests – he supposed to be early fifties, but has the physique of someone two decades younger. Much of the film takes place in Lenin’s bechamber, which has all sorts of echoes with other films by Sokurov… but later, he goes for walk in the woods surrounding the dacha, and that’s another bunch of Sokurov’s films it’s referencing…Ãnd yet, the Power trilogy is, as the name suggests, about the nature of power, and by choosing three powerful figures whose powers were fading fast – Hitler toward the end of his reign, Hirohito after Japan had surrended, and Lenin on his death bed – Sokurov is in danger of belabouring his point. Except he makes each film a character study and a metaphysical treatise. This is a director who is head-and-shoulders above everyone else at the top of his game. Ten years from now, people will be comparing Tarkovsky to Sokurov, not trying to find reasons why Sokurov should be seen as of similar stature to Tarkovsky because the latter once praised him.

Éloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard (2001, France). In theory, I have a lot of time for Godard; in practice, less so. I think he’s perhaps the most experimental director of commerical cinema – without being full-on avant-garde – France has produced, and I think he has not only deliberately built that reputation but also capitalised on it. Some of his early experimental as part of the Nouvelle Vague is blindingly good, but I suspect more by accident than by design. Whenever Godard was more interested in his stars than his story, the film suffered – the two contrary examples perhaps being Bande á part and Une femme est une femme – but when his focus was on the narrative, he produced some truly excellent films. And in later years, he appears to have been more concerned with cinema as an art form, which means his films became more interesting narratively without having to rely on the charismatic stars of earlier decades. So, an improvement in some respects. As many a director has discovered, you can tell any old story given a star with sufficient screen presence – as indeed Godard himself has taken advantage of in the past. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Éloge de l’amour is a film that succeeds on its own terms, but its terms are somewhat narrower than most viewers would accept. It starts out as black and white, and never quite convinces as noir, which somewhat renders the choice of of palette dubious. But then it switches to saturated colour, but never quite explains the reason for the change. Godard’sfilms usually require several viewings to fully appreciate, but this was a rental and I only gave it the one viewing. The more Godard I watch, the more Godard I want to watch. But his oevure has only been released patchily in the UK…

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 856


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Moving pictures 2016, #5

Still catching up on these…

tere_nammTere Naam, Satish Kaushik (2003, India). After watching Deewaar, I stuck a bunch of Bollywood films on my rental list and the first to arrive was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which I really enjoyed… but the next one, Tere Naam, turned out to be something altogether different. The title means “in your name”, and the story is roughly based on that of Romeo and Juliet. Which makes it pretty dark for for what I’d expected of Bollywood – although the songs are still there, of course. Radhe is a “college rowdy” and head of the Student Union. Nirjara is the daughter of a priest, poor but a Brahmin. Radhe falls in love with Nirjara, but she doesn’t return his feelings. So he kidnaps her and forces her to fall in love with him. But then gangsters beat up Radhe, including repeatedly bashing his head against a railway locomotive’s buffer plate and giving him brain damage. He is consigned to hospital and then an ashram. In one of his infrequent moments of lucidity, he tries to escape but badly injures himself. Nirjara visits him but he is in a coma. So she goes home and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Radhe recovers – the coma has somehow fixed his brain damage – and escapes in order to see Nirjara… but, of course, she is dead. In amongst all this, we have typical Bollywood song and dance routines, the sorts of songs that rush through half a dozen musical genres in five or so minutes. There’s also lots of over-the-top fight scenes, with over-the-top sound effects. I’ve said before that Bollywood is “Hollywood turned up to eleven”, and this is as good an example of that as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. It was dark, surprisingly dark, but still fun.

ashes_diamondsAshes & Diamonds*, Andrzej Wajda (1958, Poland). Wajda is one of Poland’s best-known directors but I seem to have missed out on most of his films – although I’ve watched a quite number of Polish directors; and have been a fan of Kieślowski’s work for a decade or more. Ashes & Diamonds is not Wajda’s only film to appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, both Man of Marble and Man of Iron are on there – both of which I’ve seen, and both of which I rate highly. But then the topic of those two films – a Stakhanovite worker, socialism, and the failures of Stalinism – appeals to me, but Ashes & Diamonds is set shortly after WWII and is about the war and its immediate aftermath, a subject I find less interesting. A group of resistance fighters, formed during the war to fight the Russians but still fighting into the 1950s – plan to assassinate a minor government official. The first attempt fails, when they gun down the two occupants of the wrong jeep. so they plan an attack during a celebratory dinner for the official. But one of the assassins falls in love with the barmaid at the hotel where he is staying, and has second thoughts. The other assassin gets pissed with a report, gatecrashes the dinner and causes havoc. The first assassin – who wears sunglasses because he ruined his eyesight during the Warsaw Uprising by spending so much time in the city’s sewers – manages to kill the target but is then chased and gunned down by soldiers. The film is shot in black and white and the damage the war caused is plain to see in every frame. Ashes & Diamonds is generally reckoned to be one of the best films to come out of Poland but, to be honest, I preferred the other two Wajda movies I’ve seen. It all felt a bit too obvious and self-conscious, a bit too similar to the US films which inspired it. But it probably still belongs on the list.

howtoHow To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, David Swift (1967, USA). You know when they take a Broadway musical and put it on the silver screen and use the original cast and the film sinks without trace because no one knows who the stars are… well, that’s probably what happened to this particular film. Who remembers Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee? Admittedly, the female roles were recast for the movie, although it doesn’t appear to have been a springboard to fame for any of them either. The plot follows a window cleaner who uses the advice in the eponymous self-help book to rise up the corporate ladder at the Worldwide Wicket Company (“wicket”, of course, means something completely different outside the US, so was a piss-poor choice of word). The film is meant to be humourous, but it’s hard to find the laughs in a story that not only encourages, but actually celebrates, back-stabbing, character assassination and workplace deception. Even if it does feature songs. None of which are memorable. I’m not sure why I rented this, it’s not like I’m a fan of musical films – although there several I like quite a bit – so perhaps it was because it looked like it might be one of those stylised 1960s technicolour films which can be fun. It wasn’t. Avoid.

wake_in_frightWake in Fright*, Ted Kotcheff (1971, Australia). With a title like Wake in Fright, and that somewhat lurid artwork on the eureka! edition DVD, I think can be forgiven for letting this film slip down the rental list. But eventually it arrived… and proved to be not at all what I’d expected. And very good indeed. A teacher at some godforsaken Outback station heads for Sydney for the Christmas holiday. This requires taking the train to Bundanyabba, a small town, and catching a flight from there. But in Bundanyabba, he falls in with the locals, spends all his money gambling – a game called “two-up”, which entails flipping two coins up in the air from a small wooden paddle – and then goes on a drunken binge which ends up with a group of them haring around the Outback in a ute, pissed as farts, shooting kangaroos. As a chronicle of one man’s descent into drunken depravity and degradation, this is pretty scary stuff. Donald Pleasance plays a good part as the alcoholic doctor the teacher falls in with, and even Chips Rafferty as the jocular local constable successfully exudes macho menace while ostensibly helping the teacher. A good film, worth seeing.

demyModel Shop, Jacques Demy (1969, France). I bought the Intègrale Jacques Demy box set just so I could see films like Model Shop, which weren’t available in UK editions. And while the DVDs in the set are well-presented, I’ve yet to be convinced Demy’s oeuvre was, in total, especially good. He was certainly variable. Model Shop is set in California, with a US cast. and filmed in English, and feels like the product of a US director. A young architect is called up for the Vietnam draft, goes to a model shop (a photographic studio specialising in erotica), spends a night with one of its models, only to find the next morning that his girlfriend has left him and his car has been repossessed. Model Shop is considered one of Demy’s most-underrated movies but to be honest all I can remember of it was that it felt very Californian and surprisingly not much like the Demy films I’d seen up to that point. Still, I have the boxed set so I can always rewatch it…

killing_fieldsThe Killing Fields*, Roland Joffé (1984, UK). I’ve had a copy of the soundtrack of this movies for, well, since its release, as it was composed and performed by Mike Oldfield and I was a Mike Oldfield fan (I suppose I still am, just not to the same level). So I knew the music, but not the film. But I knew mostly what the film was about – which was the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power in Cambodia in the early 1970s. It focuses on a US journalist covering the civil war – played by Sam Waterson of Law & Order fame – and his Cambodian translator/guide/assistant, played by Haing S Ngor. When Khmer Rouge win the war and take power, Pol Pot begins his Year Zero policy. Waterson escapes back to the US, as does Ngor’s family, but Ngor himself is sent to a labour camp – and though Waterson tries to find him, he fails to do so. Fortunately, Ngor escapes and treks through the jungle to the border with Thailand, and is eventually re-united with his family. There’s not much you can say about Pol Pot’s regime – it was brutal, resulted in the death of a quarter of the country’s population, and so corrupted the high ideals which prompted it that those ideals themselves have been tainted by association. Joffé’s film is an efficient telling of the story, but I have to say Oldfield’s soundtrack is really intrusive. I used to like the album, but it felt completely out-of-place as I watched the film. A film that belongs on the list, I think, but not because it’s a great film.

chronicleChronicle of a Summer*, Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch (1961 France). An odd beast, this one. Two film-makers sent out a bunch of students to interview working people about their happiness. Later, they showed the interviewees the film and asked their opinion. And that’s pretty much it. Filmed in black and white, with a 16 mm camera and a prototype portable tape recorder, it’s little more than a series of conversations between people, some prompted by questions – which range from the banal to the pretentious – while those answering try not to appear too stupid but instead come across as pretty typical for the time and place. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it reminds me of Godard films like Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée, which I didn’t especially like or enjoy; and the banality of some of the encounters in Chronicle of a Summer make you wonder why you’re watching it. Meh.

demyLa baie des anges, Jacques Demy (1963, France). I said earlier that Demy’s output was variable – it’s not just the spoken-word versus sung-word films, more that some seem iconic whereas others feel anything but. Lola is an iconic film, with spoken dialogue; Les demoiselles de Rochefort is an iconic film, with sung dialogue. La baie des anges (The Bay of Angels) is just like Lola, a black and white film, starring Jeanne Moreau, which manages to perfectly capture a particular emotion of the time. A young man holidays in Nice, where he spends time gambling in the casinos. There, he meets Moreau, who looks and acts about as early-1960s French cinema as is humanly possible, a gambling addict who hangs around the casino. The two enter into a relationship. She tells him gambling will always come first for her. And so it does. This is a movie that relies style and presentation as much as it does story and, as mentioned earlier, comparisons with Lola are inevitable. And it compares favourably. Lola is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but it’s probably a toss-up between it and La baie des anges as to which should have made the cut.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 717


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2014, the best of the year

It’s that time of year again, when everyone is doing their best of the year lists. For some people, it’s the best of what was released during the year in question, for others it’s the best of what they consumed. For me, it’s the latter. While I’ve done better this year reading, watching and listening to new stuff, the bulk of the books, films and albums I’ve enjoyed are from previous years, decades and, er, even centuries.

For a change, this year I’ve included the positions of items from my best of the half-year (see here). That’s the number in square brackets after some of them.

books
I did some reading for the Hugo in the early part of the year, and a couple of those books make it into this post – although they didn’t make it onto the Hugo shortlist. But then the Hugo didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with its fiction categories this year. My top five includes three favourite authors, one new to me, and another who I’d read before.

1 Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). Lowry came first last year as well, with Under the Volcano, so clearly my love for the man’s prose remains undiminished. This one, however, is a meta-fictional novel, and I do like me some meta-fiction. I wrote about it here.

all-those-vanished-engines-paul-park-base-art-co2 All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). And this is another meta-fictional novel, but constructed from three separate novellas. One of those novellas, Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, made my best of the half year list. I wrote about it here.

3 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) [1]. I read this for my Hugo nominations, and was surprised at how effortlessly good it was (it’s the first Atkinson I’ve ever read).

europe_in_autumn4 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) [5]. I fully expect this to be on a couple of award shortlists in 2015. I’m also very much looking forward to the sequel.

5 Home, Marilynne Robinson (2008). Just lovely writing. And, for me, a more believable character-study than Gilead.

Honourable mentions: Daughters of Earth, Justine Larbalestier, ed. (2006), excellent anthology of historical sf, with critical articles; Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), Ice Age adventures from a writer I’ve long admired who seems to be entering something of a golden period; The Machine, James Smythe (2013) [3], Ballardian near-future, bleak but lovely writing; Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) [4], excellent collection and the author’s only book, which I reviewed for SF Mistressworks here; HHhH, Lauren Binet (2013) [HM], meta-fictional treatment of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942; Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986) [HM], very good but not quite categorisable novel, I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here; The Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971), the third part of the Raj Quartet and featuring the brilliantly-drawn Barbie Bachelor.

films
It was a good year for films. Not only did I see many films but I also saw many good ones. Hence the somewhat large number of honourable mentions.

beau-travail1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) [1]. This was my No. 1 back in June, and it still is in December. A beautifully-shot film whose final scene lifts it from excellent to superb.

2 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland). This became an immediate favourite the moment I watched it. A history of Poland under communism told by an amateur cast using meat products as illustration? With dance interludes? What’s not to love?

3 Man of Marble, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland). I’d seen the sequel to this, Man of Iron, earlier in the year and thought it good, but this film is so much better.

4 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) [2]. Beautiful and enigmatic, by far the best science fiction film to appear in cinemas in 2014. And a great improvement on the novel too.

violentsaturday5 Violent Saturday, Richard Fleischer (1955, USA). I like 1950s melodramas, I like noir thrillers. So how could I not like a film that combines the two? In glorious Technicolour too.

Honourable mentions: Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) [3]; Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) [4]; The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) [5]; Upstream Colour, Shane Carruth (2013, USA) [HM]; Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century), Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) [HM]; Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan); The Great White Silence, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK); Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog (2010, Canada/UK); The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012, UK); Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia); Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran). Not to mention some rewatches of Michael Haneke films, at least two rewatches of my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows (I bought the Criterion Blu-ray but it proved to be region-locked. Argh), the same for another favourite, Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Second Circle, and a rewatch of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s excellent Gertrud.

Worst films: The Philadelphia Experiment, Paul Ziller (2012), dreadful remake with the crappiest CGI ever; Dr. Alien, David DeCouteau (1989), horribly unfunny straight-to-video comedy; Stranded, Roger Christian (2013), really bad cross between Alien and The Thing set at a base on the Moon, Christian Slater’s career has really gone downhill; Starship Troopers: Invasion, Shinji Aramaki (2012), CGI shoot-em-up with as much subtlety as an arcade game and a gratuitous female nude scene… in CGI; huh?

albums
During the summer, I started exploring bandcamp.com. I was aware of it, of course, and had even bought a couple of albums from it in previous years… but I’d never really made an effort to see what was on there. Lots of really good metal bands, it seems. That’s how I stumbled across In Vain, who quickly became a favourite. Toward the end of summer, I had to upgrade the Debian distro on my work PC, and afterwards the soundcard started working properly – which meant I could stream music at work, rather than just listen to my iPod. And that led to even further explorations of bandcamp.com. All of which means my top five for the end of the year bears no resemblance to the one from my best of the half-year. And of the five bands listed, four of them I discovered on bandcamp.com.

aenigma1 Ænigma, In Vain (2013, Norway). I discovered this band in back in July and immediately bought all three of their albums. I wish I could nominate all their albums, but that would be unfair, so I’ll limit myself to this, their latest.

2 Mantiis, Obsidian Kingdom (2014, Spain). The only band on this list I didn’t discover through exploring bandcamp.com. Because I saw them perform at Bloodstock. And they were excellent. So I bought the album as soon as I got home.

3 Kentucky, Panopticon (2012, USA). Black metal and blue grass… who knew it would actually work? And it does, more so on this album than Panopticon’s others. The subject matter is also unusual – not the usual black metal occult nonsense, but the exploitation of miners in the titular US state.

hreow4 Hrēow, Ashes (2014, UK). Does for Scotland what Winterfylleth does for England. ETA: Er no, they don’t. I seem to have got confused with Falloch, who are Scottish. Ashes are actually an English atmospheric black metal (from Devon, in fact), and a very good English atmospheric black metal too.

5 Citadel, Ne Obliviscaris (2014, Australia). The last thing you expect a progressive metal band to do is go all Rondo Veneziano on you, but that’s what this album does in places. And it works really well.

Honourable mentions: Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014, Finland) [1], the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom turn out another polished piece; From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012, USA) [3], neofolk/black metal not unlike Agalloch, but a little more metal; Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014, USA) [5], epic metal that refuses to confine itself to a single genre, and that’s in each song; The Cavern, Inter Arma (2014, USA), a 45-minute track of metal epicness; Kindly Bent to Free Us, Cynic (2014, USA), seminal death metal band go all prog/jazz fusion, but their roots are still showing;  The Divination of Antiquity, Winterfylleth (2014, UK), more atmospheric black metal from the English masters of the genre; Comfort in Silence, Dryad’s Tree (2007, Germany), prog metal, the vocals need a little work but the music is excellent; Treelogia (The Album As It Is Not), The Morningside (2011, Russia), prog/black metal band, this EP is perhaps their best work so far.


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Moving pictures, #10

And 2014 continues to be the year of the films and I continue to get my money’s worth out of Amazon film rentals. Seriously, would you find the movies I’ve been watching on Netflix? I think not. Annoyingly, this month I discovered that my “region-free” Blu-ray player isn’t actually region-free – well, not for Blu-ray discs, only for DVDs. And apparently unlocking them is a lot more difficult than it is for DVDs. So it looks like I’ll have to buy myself a new properly region-free Blu-ray player… But on with this instalment of films seen…

Again, films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are asterisked, although I’ve since found a rival list which actually has more films on it I’ve seen and which I think belong on such a list. And I’ve just checked the list the above links to, which is where I got the list I’m using from in the first place – and the bastards keep on changing it. They’ve added more 2013 films – and so must have dropped others to make room for them. So how exactly are you supposed to see all the films on the list if they keep on changing it? Argh.

Dogville, Lars von Trier (20036, Denmark) Notable chiefly for being the film in which von Trier used black box theatre staging – ie, no scenery, just chalk lines with labels, and only a handful of props. Nicole Kidman plays the girlfriend of a mobster who runs away, seeks sanctuary in the titular small mountain town, where she performs everyday task as payment for sanctuary. But the tasks get more and more onerous, until she’s treated like a slave and then actually assaulted. I enjoyed the film up until the point where the violence started and Kidman was abused. It seemed… unnecessary. Von Trier had already made his point.

nicole-kidman-dogville

Whisky Galore!*, Alexander Mackendrick (1949, UK). This was based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie, who also wrote the screenplay, which was in turn based upon a real incident. In 1941, the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Erisday, and the islanders looted it of its cargo of whiskey. In the film, the SS Politican becomes the SS Cabinet Minister, and Eriskay becomes Todday. There are a couple of sub-plots, including a romance, but the bulk of the film is concerned with the battle of wits between the islanders and the authorities over the missing whiskey. Mildly amusing. There is apparently a sequel, Rockets Galore! (1957), which sounds much more kind of thing (but at £145 for the DVD, I’ll not be buying it any time soon…).

The Blair Witch Project*, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez (1999, USA) I’d managed to avoid seeing this for fifteen years, and would happily have done so for another fifteen… if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Films list and if I hadn’t found a copy for £1 in a charity shop. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it. The found footage concept might well have been fresh and exciting back in 1999, but it’s been used, if not over-used, so much since that you end up treating the film as if it were filmed normally. And in that regard The Blair Witch Project does not score well. It is mostly dull, the scares are driven chiefly by the reaction of the cast rather than the situation they’re in, and the ending falls completely flat. There were apparently nine million sequels, but I shall not be bothering with them.

The Man Who Loved Redheads, Harold French (1955, UK) This popped up on one of those “people who bought this also bought…” things when I was buying a DVD and it was very cheap and looked mildly interesting, so I bunged it on my order… It’s based on a Terrence Rattigan play and is very silly for much of its length, but there’s a surprising and quite interesting twist at the end. A man spends his entire life seeking a lost love – a young woman he met as a teenager – and encounters women who look like her at various points in his life, all played by Moira Shearer. It’s all very terribly terribly – he’s in the Civil Service and a baronet or something – although one of Shearer’s incarnations is a shop girl and it’s played smartly.

manwholovedreadheads03

The Gleaners and I*, Agnès Varda (2000, France), is one of those documentaries where the film-maker slowly inserts herself into the subject being filmed. It begins by studying people who hunt for edible vegetables among those rejected by farmers, such as potatoes that are too small, or too oddly-shaped to sell to their corporate masters… but it soon moves on to film homeless people in and around French cities. And as Varda involves herself with these people, so she begins to sympathise with them and their attitudes. I had not expected to like this, but I thought it really good. I think I’d like to see more films made by Varda.

The Great White Silence*, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK) Scott took Ponting with him on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910 as the expedition’s photographer, and this documentary was put together from the footage Ponting shot with a cinematograph. There is straight footage of Scott and his fellows as they leave New Zealand and sail to Antarctica, set up camp, and explore the surroundings. The footage of Scott’s fatal attempt on the pole itself is done using stand-ins as Ponting remained at the main camp with the rest of the expedition. There is also some quite effective model work. The whole is a fascinating, and quite affecting, record of Scott’s expedition. Apparently, it was not a commercial success at the time and Ponting died a pauper, but it has been subsequently re-evaluated and has taken its place as one of the great documentaries of all time. Recommended.

The-Great-White-Silence-30562_1

Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia) Not only is this the first film made in Saudi Arabia to be entered for international competition, but it was also written and directed by a woman, a Saudi national woman. That’s quite an achievement. The story, about a girl who rebels against societal expectations by demanding a bicycle, is perhaps nothing new but it’s handled well, the cast are uniformly good – especially Waad Mohammed in the title role – and it makes some pointed observations about Saudi society (so much so, in fact, I’m a little surprised the Saudi authorities allowed it – they’re not exactly known for their liberal tendencies).

Star Trek Voyager – Season 1 (1995) Having worked my way through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was more or less inevitable I’d eventually find myself doing the same for Star Trek: Voyager. Initially, DS9 was considered the best of the franchises, but it seems time has been kinder to Voyager than it has to the other two. While Voyager’s set-up was just a reboot of the original Star Trek series, and its central casting all come out of, er, Central Casting, with their “back-stories” and “character conflicts”… But it actually hangs together quite well, and the format does give the series a lot more freedom in terms of story-of-the-week. But, of course, this is 1990s television drama, so there has to be at least one story arc… And Voyager falls back on the Trek staple of the omniscient aliens who, well, they’re only omniscient as far as the plot dictates, and then they’re not. Still, you don’t watch Trek for rigour, scientific or dramatic. Actually, I’m not sure what you do watch it for…

Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran), is set in Iran but was actually filmed in Morocco, as director Shirin Neshat has been banned from visiting Iran since 1996. It takes place in 1953, during the US-led coup which put the shah back in power – which the Americans engineered because prime minister Mosaddegh has nationalised the Iranian oil industry. The film follows four women during this period, a prostitute, the wife of a general (ie, part of the secular elite), and an unmarried woman  and her religious friend. It’s been likened to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but I can’t see it myself. Yes, Women Without Men is an excellent film, although a recurring image of the women walking along a road in the open country seems more The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie than it does Haneke to me.

women-without-men-route-vers-la-retraite

Suspiria*, Dario Argento (1977, Italy) I am not much of an Argento fan, I prefer Brava – though I’ve only seen a small handful of movies by either director. On the strength of this film, I see little reason to change my mind. It has its moments, and the mise en scène is… interesting, all Dutch angles and saturated colours and ersatz Expressionist set designs. A young woman joins a strange ballet school, but it appears to be haunted and lots of strange events occur, including a rain of maggots while the pupils are readying themselves for bed, a few gruesome deaths, and the frequent appearances of a mysterious heavy-breather. It was a fun film, but I’m a bit baffled as why it should be on the 1001 films list.

Festen*, Thomas Vinterberg (1998, Denmark). This is not a film to watch if you’re feeling misanthropic. A large and affluent Danish film gather at the country hotel they own to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the patriarch. During the celebratory dinner, one of the sons accuses his father of sexually abusing him as a child, and of abusing his twin sister – who has committed suicide in the hotel shortly before the celebration. The family try to laugh off the son’s accusation, but as the weekend progresses the family begins to fall apart. This was the first film made according to the Dogme 95 rules, so it’s made entirely with hand-held cameras and natural lighting, which gives the picture a somewhat grainy look throughout. An excellent film.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song*, Melvin van Peebles (1971, USA) I may have an incorrect number of s’s in the title of this film, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right number of a’s. A young African American, Sweet Sweetback, working in a brothel is “volunteered” to be arrested as a suspect in a murder – they know he’s innocent, but the police need to arrest someone to appease the community, and plan to release Sweet a few days later for “lack of evidence”. But the police also arrest a Black Panther, who the police beat up, but he’s defended by Sweet and the two manage to escape. Sweet goes on the run, heading for Mexico, and en route has several adventures, including a run-in with a gang of Hells Angels. There’s a definite amateur feel to the film, but the use of montage was done extremely well – and not something you saw in films of that period.

Punishment Park, Peter Watkins (1971, USA) Watkins is a documentary maker, and while Punishment Park is both fictional and more than forty years old, it could easily be a documentary of twenty-first century USA. Hippies, draft-dodgers and other political undesirables are taken out into the desert, charged and sentenced at a kangaroo court in a marquee tent, and then given a choice – a full sentence served in a federal prison, or three days in “punishment park”. This later requires them to cross 53 miles of California desert without food or water in three days, while being chased by armed police and National Guard. If they make it, they can go free. Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s faux-documentary presentation, this was a brutal film. A bit too talky in places, and some of the dialogue felt a little too… not staged, but not natural either, but the sort of dialogue where characters explain their thoughts and feelings and attempt to do the same for others – the sort of dialogue that only appears in fiction, in other words. Nonetheless, an excellent film, and was that really ought to be on the 1001 films list.

punishmentpark

Man of Marble*, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland) I saw the sequel to this, Man of Iron, before I was aware of this film. But when Second Run – who I heartily recommend, they have released some amazing DVDs – released Man of Marble, I immediately bought a copy. I like Polish cinema, some of my favourite films are from Poland, and a number of directors I greatly admire are Polish… but Wajda was one I’d mostly missed out, for some unknown reason. I’m now rectifying that. The title of this film refers to a statue of a worker who became a national hero after breaking a record for laying the most bricks in a working day during the building of a new socialist town. A film student is making a documentary about him for her thesis two decades later, but what she discovers – that it was all created and managed as propaganda; and what prompted the hero’s later fall from grace – means it becomes increasingly difficult for her to make her film. Man of Marble follows both the film student and the brick-layer, swapping effortlessly between the two decades. Like Man of Iron, it felt like a television series edited into a single long episode, but with high production values; but that worked in its favour. I really liked this film. And I can’t disagree with its presence on the 1001 Films list.


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2014, best of the half-year

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.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life 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.

2 Ghosts 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.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-p

3 The 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.

4 Busy 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.

Zoline-Tree

5 Europe 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
1 Beau 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.

beau-travail

2 Under 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.

3 Blow-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.

4 Call 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.

5 The 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.

burmese-harp-blu-ray-cover

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
1 Shadows 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”.

2 Valonielu, 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.

Oranssi_Pazuzu-Valonielu

3 From 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.

4 The 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.

5 Earth 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.

Cormorant-Earth-Diver

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.