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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.

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Behind the Iron Screen

It all started quite innocently enough. Shaun Duke posted a list of something or other on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag. I pointed out he was wrongheaded. He challenged me to produce a rival list, which I did. I challenged him to produce a list… and by this point I’ve forgotten whether we were originally discussing books or films. I’ve a feeling we started off with books but somehow drifted onto films. Anyway, he responded to my challenge and issued one of his one own, which I met. And then I challenged him to produce – and I think this is the point we’re at now – a list of five Cold War-related genre films that most people would not have heard of. Which he did. And now he has demanded that I do the same, but from the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, five Warsaw Pact Cold War-related genre films, of which at least three must be from the USSR/Russia…

Happily, I immediately thought of several possible movies. The only question was whether they qualified as Cold War-related. Or as genre. And having to choose three of the five from the Soviet Union did somewhat limit my choices. So it was more a matter of picking which five to put on my list than it was actually finding five. And here they are, in no particular order…

Sacrifice_Offret (The Sacrifice), Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). The absolutely obvious choice. It’s about a nuclear war, so you can’t get more Cold War than that. Okay, it was filmed in Sweden with a Swedish cast, but Tarkovsky is arguably the most famous film director to have come out of Russia, so in my mind it counts as a Russian film. So there. An ex-actor, played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson, lives in a nice house on a remote Swedish island with his wife. After admitting he no longer believes in God, news reaches Josephson of all-out nuclear war. He vows to sacrifice all he owns and loves if God will undo the nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, this is quite a harrowing film, but it is also Tarkovsky… and you cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Tarkovsky’s movies.

starsbyhardwaysЧерез тернии к звёздам (To the Stars by Hard Ways), Richard Viktorov (1981, USSR). The Cold War link is less obvious in this famous Russian sf film, but given that it concerns an ecological war between two groups on an alien world – and in which humans become involved after rescuing the bizarre-looking Yelena Metyolkina – there’s clearly a parallel. Admittedly, the rescue mission is multi-national, but then socialist films liked to show the world’s nations working together, even if the West has always been resistant to the idea (US films, for example, always show the US doing everything) . Ruscico currently sell a copy of this on DVD. It’s completely bonkers but worth getting. I’ve heard the director’s son has released a director’s cut of the film, but to my knowledge it’s only available in Russian and my knowledge of that language is limited to a handful of pleasantries and swear words.

testpilotpirxДознание пилота Пиркса (Inquest of Pilot Pirx), Marek Piestrak (1978, USSR/Poland). Pirx was created by Polish sf writer Stanisław Lem, so there’s no doubting this film’s genre credentials; and while it’s a joint production between studios in Poland, Ukraine and Estonia, the latter two were in the USSR when the movie was made, so it counts. It’s another socialist film which presents an international crew, but there are still two sides engaged in a form of Cold War: humans and androids. Pirx must captain a ship on a space flight Saturn. One of his crew is an android, but he doesn’t know which one – and once at their destination, it tries to seize control. A weird mix of Cold War thriller, with an amazing seventies aesthetic, and hard sf, this is another DVD worth getting. Again, it’s available from Ruscico.

noendBez końca (No End), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1985, Poland). This is in no way science fiction, and it’s only Cold War-related inasmuch as its story takes place during the years of martial law in Poland after Solidarność was banned. A translator, whose lawyer husband died recently, struggles to make ends meet and bring up her son, while the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. But it’s Kieślowski, that’s all you need to know. You cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Kieślowski’s movies.

in_the_dust_of_the_starsIm Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), Gottfried Kolditz (1976, East Germany). During the 1960s and 1970s, East Germany’s Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, DEFA, made four big budget science fiction films: Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970), Der Schweigende Stern (1960), Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea (1972). The last three are available in an English-language DVD box set, but I’ve yet to find the first in an English edition (and my German is a bit rusty – I struggled when watching Raumpatrouille Orion). In Im Staub der Sterne, a spaceship lands on a rescue mission on the world of TEM 4, only for the inhabitants to deny sending a distress call. Except there are two groups on TEM 4 in a sort of Eloi / Morlock relationship, as the crew discover, and it’s not hard to read it as an Eastern Bloc versus decadent West sort of thing. The film is also astonishingly kitsch, with some of the most bonkers seventies production design ever consigned to celluloid. Hunt down that DEFA collection box set, it’s totally worth it.

szulkinO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji (O-Bi, O-Ba. The End of Civilisation), Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland). Just because I can, I’m going to make my list six films. Mostly because this movie is so on point, it didn’t deserve to be an also ran – and yet I also wanted to include the ones I’d already chosen. O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji is set entirely in an underground fallout shelter after some sort of nuclear holocaust – except there’s more going on than there initially seems. The shelter is not the shiny clean antiseptic complex you’d expect of a US Cold War movie, but a dirty ill-lit dungeon, a sort of confined post-apocalyptic wasteland in its own right. There’s a very black joke about the currency used in the shelter (Szulkin’s films all possess an amazingly dark humour). Telewizja Kinopolska have released a DVD box set containing O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji, Wojna światów – następne stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century, 1981), and Ga, Ga. Chwała bohaterom (Ga, Ga. Glory to Heroes, 1984), as well one of my favourite films, a 1993 short titled Mięso (Ironica), about the political history of Poland during the twentieth century and, er, meat products.

The also-rans? There’s Béla Tarr’s 2000 movie Werckmeister Harmonies from Hungary, which is about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but the film might have been a little hard to justify on genre grounds. Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1988) is definitely science fiction, but given that it’s adapted from a 1903 novel its Cold War credentials are a little harder to see – but Żuławski adapted the story so it read as a criticism of the Polish authorities… which they managed to spot and so shut down the production (the film was eventually completed ten years later, using stock footage and voice-over narration). Кин-дза-дза! (Kin-dza-dza!, 1986) by Georgiy Daneliya is a 1986 sf film in which a pair of Soviet innocents are dumped on a desert world in which two societies, the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, exist in near-conflict (which seems to be a common trope in Soviet sf cinema). And finally, there’s Pane, vy jste vdova! (You are a Widow, Sir!, 1971) by Czech director Václav Vorlíček, which is a sort of madcap and very silly sf comedy, involving assassins and brain transplants in an invented country, but it might be stretching the point to call it a Cold War film.


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Moving pictures, #10

I think I maintain a good spread of films in my viewing – current movies, classic movies and art house movies. Working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to some good films I might otherwise have never seen, as well as some right crap I’d have been better off avoiding. Either way, I recommend using the list to supplement your own viewing. However, one thing has been readily apparent over the past few years, and it’s that I find current Hollywood product less and less appealing. I used to watch US films, as most people do, it was pretty much all I knew. But movies from other countries do exist, other nations do have cinematic traditions… and many of them are, well, actually much better than Hollywood. You can’t call yourself a film fan if you only watch Hollywood films. That’s like describing yourself as a gourmet despite only eating burgers.

So here is some haute cuisine (with a little fastfood thrown in):

vampyrVampyr*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1932, Germany). Subtitled “The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray”. This eureka! edition is actually the German print, although, as was common at the time, multiple language versions were filmed – in this case, German, French and English. Gray is a somewhat saturnine-looking young man, who visits the village of Courtempierre and rents a room at the local inn. Vampyr uses both intertitles and spoken dialogue to tell its story – which in terms of vampire mythology is relatively straightforward. The lord of the manor’s oldest daughter is ill, and it transpires it’s from the bite of a vampire. Gray tries to help, gets sucked into events as they unfold… but it all ends well. Dreyer is especially good on atmosphere in this, and even though the pace is somewhat slow he manages to lay it on thick. The ending, in which the vampire’s servant is drowned in flour, is also pretty effective. On balance, I much prefer Dreyer’s later work – his three Danish films are superb – but this one, on the cusp of his early German silent work and later Danish films with sound, is still very good.

Boudu-PosterBoudu Saved From Drowning*, Jean Renoir (1932, France). There are films which clearly belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there are also other movies on there, by directors of films which deservedly belong on the list, whose presence is, quite frankly, a bit of a puzzle. La Règle du jeu and La Grande illusion are stone-cold classic movies… but Boudu Saved From Drowning? Really? It’s mildly amusing, and even though the social commentary is biting, it’s still somewhat obvious. Technically, it’s clearly ahead of its time – at no point while watching it does it seem like a film made in 1932. But its story of a tramp rescued from, er, drowning, who his saviours then try to turn into a useful member of society, is a little too broadly comical to be pointed – if that’s not a contradiction. It didn’t help that Boudu with a beard bore an uncanny resemblance to Stephen Fry. Whatever – a diverting film even if not one that clearly belonged on the list.

catsmeowThe Cat’s Meow, Peter Bogdanovich (2001, USA). This is apparently based on a true story. In 1924, a group of people spent the weekend aboard William Randolph Hearst’s luxury yacht, ostensibly to celebrate the birthday of Thomas H Ince, a cinema pioneer who owned one of the first movie studios. Other guests included Charlie Chaplin, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, writer Elinor Glyn, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. Allegedly, Ince died of a heart attack but rumour has it he was shot by Hearst over Marion Davies. The film suggests his death was an accident – Hearst thought he was firing at Chaplin, who had been trying to persuade Davies to leave Hearst and marry him. The film is a well-played period piece, although Eddie Izzard as Chaplin is actually pretty bad. The story is the sort of ultra-rich privileged crap that all too often gets accepted as the natural order of things, which is just offensive bollocks. Entertaining but forgettable.

chineserouletteChinese Roulette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1976, Germany). Fassbinder, I think – and I say this having only seen eight of his films – did better when the plots of his films were more tightly constrained, either by their literary origin, as in Effi Briest, or the need to present an historical period, as in The Marriage Of Maria Braun, or by, as in this case, the tight focus of the story. An affluent husband and wife make arrangements for separate trips away, only to turn up together with their lovers at the family holiday home in a piece of really bad planning. But never mind, they all get along fine, and so behave as two couples – even if they’re not quite coupled as their marriage certificate defines it. At which point the crippled young daughter and her mute nanny arrive, and events take an odd turn… culminating in a parlour game among them all, in which each asks a speculative question demanding an honest answer from everyone. It’s a living-room drama, with some externally-filmed scene-setting, but it does a beautifully-paced job of setting up its situation and characters, and as a piece of writing probably betters the two Fassbinder films mentioned earlier. If the final frame of the truth or dare game feels a bit seventies television drama, with the cast walking about too much while speaking their lines, Chinese Roulette is certainly a masterclass in defining a dramatic situation. Definitely one of the good ones in the box set.

InWhichWeServeIn Which We Serve, Noël Coward and David Lean (1942, UK). Allegedly, this was based on the wartime exploits of Lord Mountbatten. Noël Coward plays the captain of a RN destroyer during the first two years of WWII. It’s careful to show life both for the ratings and the officers of the ship – the film was made with the assistance of the Ministry of Information. The model-work is a bit naff – the UK film industry never did quite manage to make model warships look like the real thing – and Coward is far too fruity to be a steadfast navy officer, no matter how plummy his background. The film is at its best when it’s belowdecks, and John Mills puts in a good turn as an ordinary seaman. But, to be honest, In Which We Serve is not even a wartime curiosity, just one in a long line of not very good war films the UK churned out during the 1940s, mostly for propaganda purposes. Not even Lean directing the “action scenes” is a saving grace (although, to be fair, I can never make up my mind about Lean – he made a handful of excellent films, but a number of very ordinary ones too). If you’re interested in UK wartime cinema, you’re probably better off checking out a few “quota quickies”.

FromUpOnPoppyHillFrom Up On Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki (2011, Japan). I’ve enjoyed the Ghibli films the most when they are not genre – such as this one is. Er, isn’t. I mean, it’s not genre. It’s a relatively straightforward – and genre-free – story about a pair of students in early 1960s Yokohama, who are attracted to one another and then learn they may in fact be brother and sister. Wrapped around this is a student protest to prevent a building used by the various student clubs, called the Latin Quarter, from being demolished by a Tokyo businessman. From Up On Poppy Hill is at its best when it’s about the relationship between the two leads, Umi and Shun, but the comedy antics as the students clean and refurbish the Latin Quarter feel like they detract from the real story. Enjoyable, but I don’t think anyone will be calling this their favourite from Studio Ghibli.

edgeoftomorrowEdge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman (2014, USA). Confused. I saw this film advertised on theatrical release as Edge of Tomorrow, but it seems to have been retitled Live Die Repeat for the sell-through (which is the name of the Japanese source text), so obviously it’s such a good film it can’t even decide what its title is. And, okay, perhaps it was a little facile to describe it as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, but that’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell. Nasty aliens invade Earth, obviously the only way to defeat them is to throw human cannon fodder at them, although strangely enough this strategy doesn’t appear to be working. As Tom Cruise repeatedly discovers because he keeps on waking up back on his first day of basic training (although no training actually takes place) and all because he was covered in a particular type of alien’s blood on the battlefield. But that’s okay, since it allows him to figure out there is a hidden mega-alien thing somewhere running the whole show and if he kills that then humanity wins – stop me if you’ve heard this before. Oh, you have? Lots of times? Seriously, if Edge of Tomorrow is being held up as a good sf film, then that says a lot about the piss-poor state of sf cinema – oh, wait, Interstellar was supposed to be the best sf film of last year, so yes, it looks like sf cinema is in a piss-poor state…

bela_tarr_collectionDamnation, Béla Tarr (1988, Hungary). I think I’m going to have to withhold judgement on Tarr’s films for now. I’ve now seen all three in the pictured box set – and while Tarr is noted for the glacial pace of his movies, and I actually like films that take time to tell their stories, I’ve not yet plugged into Tarr’s languorous way of movie-making. Damnation is, I suppose, the most straightforward of the three films, but there are long stretches where no one speaks, there is only music… And then characters speak dialogue that feels more like it should be… declaimed, like in a Jancsó film. Their naturalistic speech is… odd, perhaps even a little off-putting. Having grown up reading science fiction, I’m all too familiar with mouthpiece characters – but where Jancsó’s are overt, Tarr appears to sneak his into the story in the guise of ordinary people engaged in ordinary activities. Tarr’s films will not only bear rewatching, I strongly suspect they demand it. Meanwhile, I shall sort of hover on the edge of liking and admiring them.

nightcrawlerNightcrawler, Dan Gilroy (2014, USA). Watching this film prompted an interesting discussion on Twitter. Since thrillers depend upon violence and fear to drive their plots and maintain viewer interest, I suggested they were morally bankrupt, if not morally corrupt. In order to generate “story”, they over-state the incidence of violence and harm in the real world. And while the protagonist of Nightcrawler – played by a frankly creepy Jake Gyllenhall – does cover road traffic accidents, it’s his relationship with violent crime which comprises the plot of the film. He’s a freelance cameraman – or rather, he starts on a career as one after witnessing Bill Paxton at work – who forms a business, and increasingly poisonous and misogynistic, relationship with news channel producer Rene Russo. When Gyllenhall gets too close to his subjects, and starts crossing the line between reportage and incitement… it all goes horribly wrong. Yawn. This sort of moral conundrum is completely banal, and has been covered repeatedly in both books and films. Perhaps Nightcrawler‘s take on it rings a few trivial changes, but all we’ve really got here is a creepy update of His Girl Friday. Without the wit.

spiritualvoicesSpiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1995, Russia). I have no idea how to write about this. I was lucky enough to find a copy on eBay going for a reasonable price – it typically goes for $95 or more, but at 327 minutes split over five episodes, I suppose that’s not bad value for money (I paid less than half that). Spiritual Voices is a documentary filmed at a Russian army dugout in northern Afghanistan – but its opening episode consists of forty minutes of time-lapse photography of a village in Siberia, as night falls and dawn breaks, while Sokurov talks about Mozart and then Beethoven. The second, and following, episodes are hand-held documentary footage of Russian soldiers going about their duties night and day, sometimes interacting with the camera, but usually ignoring its presence. The soldiers, of course, are conscripts; they are also young men. And though they wear the uniform, and spend their days following orders, there is something not quite real about their situation. Sokurov also films the landscape surrounding them, and he’s extremely good at using landscape to paint a moral picture of the story he’s telling. Spiritual Voices is a long film, a very long film, and after a single viewing I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. That first episode is an amazing work of art – I’ve now watched it three times – but I’ve yet to determine how it fits in with the piece as a whole… This is just one of the reasons why I find Sokurov one of the most fascinating directors currently working, and why I’ve tracked down as much of his oeuvre on DVD I can find.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 584


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Moving pictures, #9

Yet more films wot I have watched of late. This brings the moving pictures posts pretty much up to date, so I won’t need to spam my blog with them quite so much from now on. Although I’m still watching rather a lot of movies, due to a lack of anything interesting on terrestrial or cable television. Perhaps I should turn the damn thing off some evenings and read a book or something…

aharddatsnightA Hard Day’s Night*, Richard Lester (1964, UK). I think I must have seen this, perhaps back in the 1970s or something, because it seems an unlikely film to have missed. Having said that, I could remember almost nothing about it – and even now, a couple of weeks after watching it, I’m having trouble recalling the actual plot. Not, it has to be said, that there was much of one. The Fab Four travel to London with Paul McCartney’s grandfather (played by Wilfred Brambell), their manager and their road manager. The band are due to perform on a television programme. It was pretty clear the cast had fun making the film, and there was definitely a manic energy to it – but Lennon’s snidery palled quite quickly, a couple of long-running jokes ran too long, and the music was, well, frankly not that great.

dulwaleDilwale Dulhania le Jayenge*, Aditya Chopra (1995, India). This one was a surprise. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Bollywood films over the years, but I don’t think I’ve sat all the way through one. Nonetheless, I thought I knew what to expect and I suspected watching this film was going to be a chore… but I really enjoyed it, it was actually really good. Wastrel son of a wealthy NRI in London decides to go Interrailing before joining the family firm. Meanwhile, eldest daughter of a hard-working NRI who manages a petrol station will soon be married to the son of her father’s best friend back in Kashmir… so she too decides to go Interrailing first. The two bump into each other as they travel about Europe, fall in love, with much singing and dancing and comedy. Afterwards, she has to go to Kashmir for the wedding, there’s no getting out of it, but he follows and tries to win over her family (the two pretend not to know each other). A smart well-made rom com, with some fun song and dance routines, a well-handled plot and a pair of likeable leads. If you fancy trying a Bollywood film, put this one at the top of your list.

thesunThe Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005, Russia). This is the second of Sokurov’s quartet of films about men in power, and the subject of it is Emperor Shōwa of Japan. (While we in the West know him as Emperor Hirohito, that was his personal name and he’s now actually referred to using his posthumous name, Shōwa.) The Sun concerns the days immediately following Japan’s surrender and the emperor’s meetings with General MacArthur. Apparently, the film caused a bit of a fuss on release, perhaps because it suggests the emperor is almost an innocent, a mild-mannered educated man who tinkers with marine biology and lives in a hermetically-sealed world in which he is considered divine by all about him. That is, until he meets MacArthur. It’s considered likely he was actually a war criminal, and very much responsible for Japan’s conduct of the war – but he seemed to escape justice. Sokurov, however, is not concerned with the truth, or as in Moloch, an historically accurate portrayal. The Imperial Palace depicted in The Sun, for example, is simply a large 1920s villa and bears no resemblance to the actual Tokyo Imperial Palace. The film depicts the emperor’s descent from divine to human – not an actual change, of course, but a matter of perception. I’m not convinced it’s as successful as Moloch, perhaps because it follows a more considered approach, which tends to flatten the story’s affect, whereas Moloch‘s manic infantilism suited its topic perfectly. I still want to know why Taurus isn’t available in an English-language edition, however.

satansbrewSatan’s Brew, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1976, Germany). Not the most successful Fassbinder film I’ve seen so far. A previously-successful poet, now suffering from writer’s block, shoots his mistress, and then sort of runs around manically, demanding sex from Ingrid Caven, who is married someone else, visiting his own wife and intellectually disabled brother? brother-in-law?, and charging around various places demanding money. The Wikipedia plot summary, which is not very long, concludes with, “Some more obscure things happen but in the end everyone is back on stage”. Which is as good a way of describing it as any. The contents of this Fassbinder box set have been somewhat variable, but I’m glad I’ve seen the films.

bela_tarr_collectionWerckmeister Harmonies, Béla Tarr (2000, Hungary). I’ve yet to decide what to make of Tarr’s films. That they’re slow, with very long takes, and filmed in stark black-and-white, and that sort of film-making appeal to me far more than the frenetic jump-cuts of your present-day Hollywood tentpole franchise movies. (But I also like Technicolor movies, too.) Tarr’s films are also allusive, which again is something I appreciate, in both film and literature. But I think what’s preventing me from really falling for this movie, or the other Tarr I have seen, The Man from London, is that there’s something very play-like about the way they’re put together. And for some reason the mismatch between theatrical presentation and cinematic technique never quite  works for me. In Werckmeister Harmonies, a travelling circus, whose chief attraction is a stuffed whale, appears in a Hungarian town, and triggers a wave of violence. I’m going to have to watch this film again, I think, as while some bits of it seemed to work really well, the allegorical skeleton on which the plot was hung didn’t articulate quite as well for me as it was likely intended to. But at least I bought the box set, so I can rewatch the films at my leisure. Incidentally, I also bought mysql a copy of Sátántangó, so I’ll be able to watch all seven hours of that at my leisure…

foxFox and his Friends*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). A young gay man, played by Fassbinder himself, is obsessed with winning the lottery. Which he does, shortly after entering into a relationship with an older man, an antiques dealer. When the antique dealer’s friends discover that the oick they’re looking down their nose at is worth half a million DMs, they set about swindling him out of his money, seducing him and persuading him to pay their way out of their financial difficulties. Which he happily does, wrongly impugning more than just mercenary motives to their treatment of him. Prior to receiving this Fassbinder box set for Christmas, I had never seen one of his films. And I’ve now seen seven (of the eight films in the box set), and there have been some good ones and some not so good ones. I’ve yet to decide whether I want to explore more of Fassbinder’s oeuvre – and he made a lot of films – probably because so many of the contemporary ones seem very similar in tone and presentation. Perhaps I just watched too many of his films in too short a period – like the time I watched three seasons of The X-Files back-to-back, three or four episodes a night, and could hardly sleep afterwards I felt so paranoid…

dawnofdeadDawn of the Dead*, George A Romero (1978, USA). No, I’ve never actually seen this before, and no, I probably would never have bothered if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (and how many films on the list have I said that about?), and I’ve never been a fan of zombies, a trope that’s been used intelligently perhaps a handful of times since it first appeared. And, to be brutally honest, this isn’t one of them. Something has caused the dead of the US to rise as flesh-eating zombies – your basic zombie trope, in other words – and a group of people escape various encounters with them, including an extended sequence set in a shopping mall. The film was made of the cheap, and looks it; and the some of the special effects, while gruesome, look cheap and stagey. Apparently, I watched a director’s cut but there’s some confusion over which particular one. All I remember is that it was long, and while there was plenty of action there wasn’t much plot. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of horror films – I’m far too squeamish – and I can perhaps understand how Dawn of the Dead might be seen as a “classic”… But there wasn’t a fat lot there to appeal to me, and I’m happy to just cross it off the list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 582


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Moving pictures, #8

The Blu-ray was starting to crackle and fill the screen with static when you ejected a disc, and its remote control was seriously irritating me with its bad design and hard-to-figure-out-what-button-was-what; and the old stereo was just sitting there doing nothing since only the DVD-player had been plugged into it… So I had a bit of a clear-out. I bought myself a new Blu-ray player, one that can play all regions of DVD and Blu-ray, from mrmdvd.com, and chucked everything else away. I also bought myself a soundbar, but it turned out my 18-month-old television didn’t have the necessary new-fangled output for it, so I had to cancel the order. Gah. Backward compatibility FTW. Not. Anyway, the corner of the living-room now looks a lot tidier, the new player works very well indeed, and, of course, I’ve watched my Criterion Blu-ray of All That Heaven Allows*…

europa_europaEuropa Europa*, Agnieszka Holland (1990, Germany). A Jewish boy is captured by Soviets while escaping Germany, grows up in a Soviet orphanage, but is then captured by Nazis – and pretends to be an Aryan German. It’s based on a true story, and protagonist Jupp (AKA Solomon Perel, AKA Josef Peters) first acts as translator to front-line Wehrmacht troops, but is then sent to a Hitler Youth school. Where he falls for an Aryan mädchen, a dubbed Julie Delpy… except she wants a child for Hitler but Jupp can’t let her see his todger because he’s circumcised and that’ll reveal him as a Jew. This is all based on a true story – in fact, the real Jupp appears as himself in an epilogue set in Israel in the year of filming. But I never quite felt the film got across the fear Jupp must have been feeling as he masqueraded as a Hitler Youth. The hate, not to mention the rejection, of his position was there, and some of the lengths Jupp went to in order to disguise his race, not to mention his reasons for doing so, were certainly horrific. This is an excellent film, and if it fails occasionally in the implementation, it’s still a story that demands to be told. Definitely worth seeing.

shock_aweAntichrist, Lars von Trier (2009, Denmark). I’m really not sure what to make of von Trier’s films. There was much to admire in Antichrist, for example – including a scene supposedly imagined during therapy that was pure Sokurov – but it’s always like 4 and 5 makes 10. Admittedly, the final credits revealed Antichrist was dedicated to Tarkovsky, which made some of it understandable (including that Sokurov-ish scene), but some of von Trier’s signature touches seemed to work much better than others. A couple lose their child, and the husband – Willem Dafoe – persuades the wife – Charlotte Gainsbourg – that they must go to an isolated cabin in the woods. Then it all goes a bit strange. In von Trier’s favour is that his films bear, if not demand, re-watchings. There are elements in this one, for example, which don’t initially seem to make sense. But there’re also those which plummet toward the schlocky, which other von Trier films have suffered from. After so much metaphorical and allegorical payload, the film turns into art house horror, and it does tend to undo what’s go before. It’s not that von Trier does not have the courage of his convictions – if there’s one thing this film does not lack throughout its length, it’s conviction – but it often feels like he does’t have enough confidence in his allusiveness, or feels a need to shock the viewer as if whatever judgement a film may receive will depend entirely on that shock value. When you look at earlier films, such as Europa, the shocking end felt of a piece with the story, and if it seemed melodramatic it was at least in keeping with the movie’s aesthetic. But in Antichrist, the horror doesn’t quite blend… and I can’t decide if that’s a deliberate provocation or an unintended artefact. I suppose the fact I can’t tell at least demonstrates von Trier’s importance as a director…

Lisa-And-The-Devil-blu-rayLisa and the Devil, Mario Bava (1973, Italy). I have enjoyed the odd Mario Bava in the past, and I do like the fact they’re very much movies of their time and not particularly gory… so I bunged a few on the rental list, and one of them dropped through the letter box. Also, of course, Elke Sommer. While Lisa and the Devil had its moments, and a story that actually wasn’t too bad, this was pretty cheap entertainment and not a film that’s worth watching more than the once. A tourist lost in Toledo stumbles across an antiques shop in which a creepy-looking Telly Savalas is buying an item. Later, having failed to find her friends, she accepts a lift from a couple in a limousine. The car breaks down outside a creepy-looking mansion… and the butler there proves to be Telly Savalas. It’s all something to do with an aristocratic family, a dark secret, and a demon or something. Apparently, the film was recut to resemble The Exorcist in the US and bombed because… everyone thought it was a rip-off of The Exorcist. Duh. More for fans of Bava or bad 1970s horror, I suspect.

daysofheavenDays Of Heaven*, Terrence Malick (1978, USA). I really wanted to like this, Malick is a very visual director and this is one of those not-very-commercial-successful Hollywood film where the auteur seems to win out over the usual crass Hollywood product. There’s also a (mostly) good cast too. But it really didn’t work. It felt like substandard DH Lawrence transposed to 1920s Texas, and the lovely cinematography was not enough to save it. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams move to Texas from Chicago in 1916, and find work with a local farmer. He falls for Adams, so Gere persuades her to marry him so the two of them can live the good life at the farmer’s expense. It ends badly. Duh. This is a film rightly praised for its cinematography, but the story was slow and uninvolving, and even in 1978 Gere might make a good lead in a rom com but he didn’t have the chops for something as serious as this (unlike Same Shepard, who played the farmer). Disappointing.

masculinMasculin Féminin*, Jean-Luc Godard (1966, France). I have mixed feelings about Alphaville and I absolutely adore Le Mépris, but I can’t really say I’ve seen anything else by Godard that I’ve liked. Including this one. The problem with a lot of Nouvelle Vague cinema is that its characters are self-absorbed to a point that makes them unsympathetic and dull to watch. (The same is also true of a some of Rohmer’s earlier films.) As for plot, well, that’s just bourgeois. (I jest, as I actually agree that plot is over-rated.) Anyway, Masculin Féminin is a series of discussions, monologues, diatribes and pontificating by a young man who enters into a relationship with a young woman, and her two flat-mates, who does not share his tastes or politics. I vaguely recall there being lots of polo-neck jumpers and arguments in corridors. It was all a bit yawn.

bela_tarr_collectionThe Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary). After watching on rental thirty minutes of Barr’s Sátántangó in which nothing happened, I decided I ought to buy one of his films in order to give him a fair go – and from what I’d read, his style of film-making was likely to appeal. So I bought The Béla Tarr Collection box set, which contains three of his films, and this was the first of them I watched, coincidentally with a friend who was also new to Tarr’s movies. It made for an interesting experience. The story of The Man from London is apparently taken from a Simenon story, and it was a while before we nailed down the setting. But the movie also proved a welcome antidote to most Hollywood films, in that the pacing was leisurely, if not glacial, the cinematography was lovely, it was black and white, and the only way to watch was to patiently let it slowly unfold. It was a little off-putting to have one of the actors dubbed by a Fox brother – they have way too distinctive voices – but given the stately progress of the story it actually seemed to fit really well. I’m told some of Tarr’s films are real exercises in endurance, but this was an excellent introduction to his oeuvre. And I still have two more films to watch in the box set…

planete_sauavageLa Planète Sauvage*, René Laloux (1973, France). A highly-regarded science fiction animated film that happens to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… so why not buy a copy? On Blu-ray? So I did. And, well… I was expecting weird, the cover of the Blu-ray alone is enough to prime a viewer for weird. And, it has to be said, I do like me some weird in my cinema. But while it struck me that the story of La Planète Sauvage was fairly routine, and something you might find in a bande dessinée or Polish sf story… the animated design by Roland Topor definitely qualified as strange. On an alien world, giant blue aliens – like the one on the Blu-ray cover – keep humans as pets, though there are many “feral” humans about. A baby human is adopted as one such pet by a young alien girl, but somehow manages to follow the electronic teaching she receives and so becomes educated. He later escapes and meets up with a group of feral humans, and persuades them to fight against the aliens… As allegories go, this is pretty in-your-face, and the idea of using sf to hide what you really want to say and make it palatable was past its sell-by date in 1973. But La Planète Sauvage still presents a unique vision, and is worth seeing for that (even if some of the short films included on the Blu-ray are a bit too much Métal Hurlant, and so less interesting).  Nonetheless, worth watching.

baron_bloodBaron Blood, Mario Bava (1972, Germany/Italy). Another 1970s Bava horror film that, er, stars Elke Sommer. A young American man with a toothsome smile visits relatives in Austria, where he learns about a castle which used to belong to an ancestor, called, er, Baron Blood. Sommer plays an archaeologist investigating the castle’s history while it is being refurbished. She and young American man, while acting about, read out a curse inflicted on Baron Blood, and then read out the words meant to lift the curse. So the baron comes back from wherever he was… and after killing a few people ends up as Joseph Cotton in a wheelchair. This is pretty much standard 1970s Euro horror fare, and if it isn’t, it certainly fits my idea of what it might be. It was kind of fun, but even for Bava it was pretty weak.

shock_aweMelancholia, Lars von Trier (2011, Denmark). You know where science fiction literalises metaphors? Now imagine that depression was a giant planet on a collision course with Earth… Von Trier has said that the story of Melancholia was inspired by his discovery that people with depression remain calmer during crises than people not suffering depression. Which revelation actually leads to three readings of the film. As your actual science fiction, it’s nonsense – the near approach of the rogue planet Melancholia, and its effects on the Earth, are not in the slightest bit scientifically accurate. As genre, it’s hard to imagine a literalised metaphor more in your face than a giant planet about crash into the Earth. However, seen as a study of Kirsten Dunst’s character, in the face of the collision with Melancholia… The first time I watched the film, I took the first reading, despite the fact the story is mostly about Dunst’s wedding, subsequent breakdown and recovery with her sister’s family (also the hosts of the wedding and reception). And the planet Melancholia crashes through the story like a giant implausible thing of implausibility. It all looks absolutely gorgeous, of course, but your suspension of disbelief is in sore need of a hook to hang it on. However, a combinations of readings two and three a) renders it a much more interesting film, and b) allows you to appreciate the lovely cinematography for what it is. I thought Melancholia much better on this rewatch than I had the first time I saw it. I still need to work out what von Trier is doing with his films, but he’s certainly one of the more interesting directors currently making movies.

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 577

* For the record, the colours are gorgeous, but the picture is so precise it appears slightly grainy, and the shadows and dark areas tend to block out a little. And I really need to get a soundbar or something. Oh, and the film itself is still brilliant.