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Moving pictures 2018, #11

I know I have a very broad taste in movies, but this half-dozen seems to be taking the piss a little. A Japanese tokusatsu, a spaghetti sci-fi (based on German pulp sf), the last of Jancsó’s self-referential Hungarian meta-comedies, three Children’s Film Foundation movies, a Bollywood film, and a Chinese romcom…

Cutie Honey, Hideaki Anno (2004, Japan). So I was looking for films to add to my Cinema Paradiso rental list when I saw this one and was surprised to recognise the director’s name – whose name I knew from the Evangelion films, of course. So I texted David Tallerman and asked him if he’d seen it. He’d never even heard of it. He immediately looked it up (and discovered the US special edition DVD came with a Cutie Honey lunch box) and bought the (vanilla edition) DVD. Meanwhile, I added it to my rental list and moved it to #1. And it arrived a few days later. And… Well, it makes MTV look like slow cinema. And there’s zero exposition. It is completely bonkers. In a way that Japanese films can only be. Cutie Honey is some sort of heroine, powered by a badge, or something, which was invented by her father, who makes only a couple of of fleeting appearances. And there’s a villain, who is now a tree (really) who wants to take over Japan, or something. And, okay, I’ve no real idea what was going on in this film. The opening scenes have Cutie Honey preventing the Golden Claw from kidnapping a scientist, in some of the most ridiculous fight scenes I’ve ver seen, but none of its seems to make much difference as halfway through a tower grows under the Tokyo Tower and lifts its several hundred feet in the air. And then Cutie Honey battles the villain’s minions, but is captured by swordsman who is half-white and half-black, like a yin-yang symbol, and can fly…. I suppose in many respects, Cutie Honey is not unlike some of the anime films I’ve seen, but having had no previous experience of tokusatsu, I’ve no idea if that’s typical. It was fun, in a mad sort of way. I’d add a couple to my rental list, but I’ve no way of knowing which are the good ones and which are the bad ones – and I’m only assuming Cutie Honey is good because of Anno’s name (because the Evangelion films are very good).

Mission Stardust, Primo Zeglio (1967, Italy). I have a sort of love-hate relationship with spaghetti sci-fi films, which is an awful label for science fiction films made during the the 1970s in Italy to cash in on a post-2001 market, but I can’t think of anything better. Some of them transcended their origins and are now considered cult films. Some vanished into obscurity. Rightfully so. Some are being rediscovered – thanks to releases on DVD by Shameless and Arrow. I have even bought some of them. Mission Stardust is loosely based on the Perry Rhodan series of books, the most successful science fiction series of all time, with more than 3000 volumes published since 1961. I seem to vaguely recall reading a couple of English translations back in the 1980s. Despite its success, there are few film adaptations. It’s claimed it influenced Eolomea, and other DEFA sf films, but only in as much as it was the public face of German sf. The DEFA sf films, incidentally, are good. Well, perhaps not Signale – ein Weltrainabenteuer (see here). Anyway, Mission Stardust has a mission to the Moon encounter a stranded alien spacecraft. A senior member of the crew is dying of leukaemia, but there is a cure on Earth. So the female commander of the alien spacecraft – who gratuitously changes her clothing in front of Perry Rhodan before leaving the spaceship – pilots the shuttle down to a small African nation. Where a crime lord sees a chance to seize power by kidnapping the alien commander. So there’s this weird mix of styles – what starts out as mid-sixties Italian sci-fi turns into a colonoial thriller, but one in which the good guys have super-advanced technology. One of the appeals of spaghetti sci-fi was always the design, that characteristic 1960s Italian design you see in some films of the period from the country. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be much in evidence in Mission Stardust. The alien shuttle looks more like a giant bathysphere than a spacecraft. And the model work is all a bit pants. I found this free on Amazon Prime, so it’s not like I’m out of pocket for having watched it. But it was rubbish, and in no way did it encourage me to read any of the Perry Rhodan books.

Ede megevé ebédem, Miklós Jancsó (2006, Hungary). I have now seen all six of Jancsó’s Kapa and Pepé films and I’m no wiser as to what they’re about. The two title characters play so many roles – including themselves! – throughout the series, and often within a single film. Not to mention Jancsó’s own appearances as himself, sometimes as the actual director of the film. And Gyula Hernádi, who wrote a number of Jancsó’s films, including co-writing credits on these, also pops up every now and again. In this one, Kapa and Pepé meditate on Hungarian capitalism. But not even using Google translate on Hungarian reviews helps explain what’s going on. One review machine-translates as: “Small house in the woods. Mucsi and Scherer are in it. They refused. A puppy protects them. Mucsi is dealing with something of a mystery. Maybe with escorts.” Um, yes. Pepé joins a mafia family who run a prison… but then the film flashes back to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, also starring Peter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi, and it all has something to do with voluntary execution, both in the mafia-run privatised prison and in Ancient Rome. I’m going to have to watch these six films again, probably several times, but I suspect I’ll never really understand what’s going on in them. But that can be a good thing too.

The Monster of Highgate Ponds / The Boy Who Turned Yellow / A Hitch in Time, Cavalcanti / Michael Powell / Jan Darnley-Smith (1961/1972/1978, UK). I added this collection of Children’s Film Foundation films to my rental wishlist because of the Michael Powell one. I’m a fan of the Archers – that’s Pressburger and Powell, not the radio serial – but I’d never seen The Boy Who Turned Yellow (although directed solely by Powell, the story and script was by Pressburger). I remember the CFF from my own childhood, short films that would play before the main feature at cinemas. I couldn’t tell you which ones I saw, and I’ve no real desire to plough all half-dozen CFF DVD collections the BFI have published. But the CFF was an excellent institution – although it does still exist, as the Children’s Media Foundation, but it hasn’t made films since 1985 after its chief source of funds, the Eady Levy, was abolished. That’s the thing about taxes, you see, they help pay for good things. And when governments cut taxes to win votes, those good things go away – not just the CFF, but the NHS, the welfare state, a proper public transport infrastructure, affordable utilities… Fuck the Tories. But, Weird Adventures… Each of the BFI collections is titled – there’s an Outer Space one (must add that one to my rental list), Runaways, Scary Stories, and so on. The three in this collection are science fiction, although hardly rigorous. In The Monster of Highgate Ponds, a travelling uncle leaves an egg for some sort of dragon with his young nephew and niece in Highgate. The egg hatches and the baby dragon imprints on the two kids. When it gets too big to hide at home, they hide it in Highgate Ponds, but discovery is inevitable – as are the bumbling crooks who try to kidnap the dragon in order to sell it to a zoo. Sadly, what charm the film has is spoiled by the really crappy stop-motion and man-in-a-suit dragon. The Boy Who Turned Yellow is better, although cringingly dated, and the lecturing is a bit heavy. A boy falls asleep in class during a lesson on electricity. On his way home, something weird happens and everyone within a small area in London turns bright yellow. The boy is visited by an alien from a planet of electrical beings, who is responsible for turning him yellow. The alien helps the boy find his pet mouse, who he had lost during a school trip to the Tower of London the previous day. It’s all very, well, CFF. In the final film, Patrick Troughton plays a time traveller. But he’s not Dr Who. And, in fact, it’s not him who does the travelling in time, but two schoolkids, who rescued him when his time machine collapsed on its unsuccessful trial run. Unfortunately, the time machine isn’t that effective and it never sends them to the intended time, meaning they’re usually inappropriately dressed. There’s a nice touch in that a teacher they hate, Sniffy Kemp, keeps on turning up in the different historical periods as a dramatic foil. This one more than the others reminded me of the CFF films I remembered from my childhood, probably because in 1978 I was a child. But they also feel much like the kids’ TV of the time I recall. However, nostalgia only has so much appeal – I mean, much as we complain about how bad things are now, and remember fondly life from previous decades, the 1970s were no utopia. I was insulated from a lot of bad stuff, of course – I was a kid. And though I admire some of the culture produced during that period, and am singularly unimpressed by some of today’s, I am inordinately fond of many of the things we take for granted in 2018, such as smartphones, streaming, cheap international travel (and free movement throughout the EU – while we’ve got it, anyway), or Google translate… (Not to mention a society that is way more equal in terms of LGBT or race relations… if considerably worse in terms of economic equality.) While I sometimes wish times were simpler, as they had been forty-odd years ago, I also know they really weren’t that simple back then, and likely no better than now in many respects, but with nylon sheets and drip-dry shirts, both of which the mere thought of having to suffer make my skin crawl… So I guess nostalgia has a part to play, just perhaps not that big a part. I suspect I’ll add a couple more of these CFF collections from the BFI to my rental list, and nostalgia will play a small part in that, but then I’ve no problem with wearing rose-tinted glasses providing you know you’re wearing them

Rock On!!, Abhishek Kapoor (2008, India). I recently upgraded my Fire TV Stick, and sold my old one to a friend. I forgot to factory-reset it before handing it over, and thought I’d better double-check my watchlist before he had a chance to plug it in. Because, well, you know… And while doing this using the Amazon website, I discovered that a shitload of Bollywood films had been added. So I bunged half a dozen on my watchlist. Including this one. I think this the first movie I’ve ever watched with two exclamation marks in the title. Four young guys in Mumbai in the 1990s formed a rock band, sort of MTV-friendly grunge, won a battle of the bands and were signed by a label. But the label’s plans and the band’s plans were not the same – the label-owner wasn’t interested in them playing their own instruments, for example. Things come to a head during the filming of the first promo video, when the director seems interested only in filming the lead singer. The guitarist kicks off, the lead singer walks out, and the band folds. Cut to ten years later. The lead singer is a successful executive in his father’s investment bank, the keyboard player now writes advertising jingles, the drummer works in his family’s jewellery shop, and the guitarist gives occasional music lessons while his wife runs a fishing business which barely manages to, er, put food on the table. The lead singer’s wife visits the drummer’s shop, unaware of who he is, discovers their connection, and decides to invite the band members to an upcoming birthday party. Which naturally leads into “we’re getting the band back together” (no prizes for spotting that reference), which ends up resetting wrongs from a decade before. Okay, the music was part of the product, a commercial movie, and for all that they were trying to be musos it sounded massively commercial, but it’s baked into the story. And this is merely a Bollywood take on well-used Hollywood material. There’s probably a 1940s version of it. In fact, I suspect one or two of the Gold Diggers movies from the 1930s might be progenitors. But, despite the US grunge rock, this was still very much a Bollywood film and I enjoyed it. Not a great movie, by any means, but a fun one. And currently free on Amazon Prime.

Zero Point Five Love, GengXiao (2014, China). I’m a big fan of China’s Sixth Generation directors and I’ve watched a lot of the more populist stuff in my time – like Jackie Chan – but the Chinese film industry is as broad as Hollywood, and probably nearly as old – see The Goddess, see here – so I’m always keen to see films from other countries that haven’t in some way been “curated”. And Zero Point Five Love appeared on Amazon Prime with no commentary so I put it on my watchlist. A Chinese girl newly returned to China after time spent in the UK falls in love with an upcoming young executive. They meet cute: she’s a dancer at a corporate event, slags off the CEO for being cheap to a young man who buys her a drink, only to discover he’s the CEO… It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched the film – and I really should write these sooner after watching them – and all I can remember is a fairly standard rom com plot played out in modern-day China with a pair of attractive and likeable leads and a number of English subtitles that really did not make much sense, like “Not as far as the slutty peacock” or “I can’t water your time seflishly anymore” or “I should be wayward for my love”. But, for all that, it’s a nice film. It’s a feel-good rom com and it does the job admirably. It’s no Jia Zhangke or Fei Mu, but neither does it claim to be. Had it been a Hollywood film itwould have been a tenth as interesting. Being Chinese, and a product of modern China, lent it some interest, but it was fairly standard romantic drama for all that. I don’t regret spending the time watching it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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The best of the half-year: 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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