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Moving pictures 2019, #24

I’ve been deliberately hanging back on watching movies of late, and mostly bingeing on box sets. This was mainly to catch up on these posts, because the box sets have been pretty, well, bad. On the other hand, I do have Twin Peaks on Blu-ray to watch, well, rewatch, and I still rate the series as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Alice in Wonderland, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1951, USA). My plan – although that may be too strong a word – to watch all of Disney’s films, but most especially the classic animated ones, continues in a somewhat erratic and haphazard manner. Disney has, of course, churned out a shitload of films in the last century or so, many of which have been forgotten for good reason. But there are a significant number, both animated and live-action, that have not only weathered the test of time but are still seen as important cinematic works. I don’t know that Alice in Wonderland is considered in the top rank of mid-twentieth-century Disney animated movies, and its story has been adapted numerous times, and is of course famous in its own right… but I thought it one of Disney’s better productions from that period. Disney relies on charm but it doesn’t always work, and with a story as well-known as Alice in Wonderland – the original book was first published in 1865, after all. But there is a noticeable look and feel to Disney animated movies, and for all their adherence to a formula, some films just seem to work better than others. I don’t know if it’s down to the source material. I doubt it. Although Alice in Wonderland certainly has a head start in that department. A lot of the movie has entered popular culture, so it’s slightly odd to watch it from start to finish. But it is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good Disney movie, one of the better classic animated ones I’ve seen. And much as is the case with the ones I didn’t take to, I’m not entirely sure why I liked this one. But I’d recommend watching it.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan). I wrote in a Moving pictures post a couple of weeks ago that I’m not a big fan of anime – a point driven home to me when I saw a friend, who is into anime quite heavily, post on Facebook that he thought Alita: Battle Angel was one of the best films he had seen so far this year. I thought it was terrible. And yet, I actually liked Space Pirate Captain Harlock (even though I keep on wanting to call it Space Pirate Captain Haddock, which would be an entirely different film) and I have to wonder if it’s just that the movie reminded me a little of Star Fleet, a Japanese puppet series from the early 1980s I loved as a teenager. Perhaps I’m over-analysing. Like that’s a trap I never fall into… Space Pirate Captain Harlock is CGI but it’s Uncanny Valley CGI, with the characters presented as if they were live-action actors. Well, except for the alien character. Who is apparently often cosplayed, so not that far from the human template. (Pointy ears, a long wig, floaty clothes and contacts.) The plot is the usual anime tosh, in which a giant alien ship attacks some random polity based on Earth and it turns out Earth created its own enemy through some past act of thoughtlessness. Sigh. But the CGI here is quite beautiful, and if the characters and setting are straight out of Central Anime Casting, the film does look quite gorgeous. Even if it does feature smoke in space. I mean, WTF. Smoke? In space? Which, in hindsight, is slightly weird as it didn’t throw me out of the film but I’ve been thrown out of movies, live-action and anime, by less. It could be just that the production design appealed to me, which it did, but I suspect not. I think it may simply have been that that world-building displayed some rigour. It’s astonishing how rare that is. True, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is based on a long-running property, so it’s had plenty of time to get things right. Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the shiny new – unpopular opinion! – just isn’t that good.

Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough (1993, UK). I have read the Narnia books, CS Lewis’s most famous creations, although not of course all he wrote, but based on those if I had to cast an actor to play Lewis in a movie adaptation of part of his life… I don’t think I would have cast Anthony Hopkins. He just doesn’t seem to fit the character. I imagine Lewis as, well smaller, and more saturnine, and perhaps even a bit spiv-ish.  But certainly not the meaty and fruity Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, Lewis had an affair, or rather a relationship, with an American woman who visited him at his college in Oxford. She was a poet, although you wouldn’t know it from this film, which presents her as a just a woman. Nor was Lewis married. If Wikipedia is any indication the film seems to represent their relationship, although it was doubtlessly  more complicated than either suggests. Shadowlands is a solid drama, with a top-drawer cast, about a bunch of people I could not honestly give a shit about, and the fact one of them is the author of the Chronicles of Narnia seems almost incidental. If you like Richard Attenborough films, you will like this one. Because that’s all it is: a Richard Attenborough movie.

The Asphyx, Peter Newbrook (1972, UK). The Hammer House of Horror series from 1980 is a touchstone television programme for me because I remember those few episodes I saw back then quite vividly. In part, those episodes define the television of the time for me. It wasn’t until four or so years ago, when I bought the DVD box set and watched them all, that I got to catch up with that memory. And it seemed I hadn’t misremembered it – they were as good as I recalled. I’ve also seen the odd Hammer horror film over the years, albeit mostly the 1970s ones, and enjoyed them enough, in a sort of mildly ironic way, to want to see more. So it’s fortunate several of them have appeared on Amazon Prime. Not just the ones from the 1950s documented in previous Moving pictures posts, but also The Asphyx, which is from the period that interests me the most. And it proved to be exactly what I’d expected. In a good way. Sort of. In other words: complete nonsense, made on the cheap, with a British cast way better than their material, and a premise so off the wall it actually sort of worked. Except, it seems, The Asphyx isn’t actually a Hammer film. But if the Hammer films were sui generis, then The Asphyx certainly belongs to that genre. The title refers to some sort of aetheric creature which appears at the moment of death and steals people’s souls. A Victorian scientist finds a way to imprison this creature and thus render himself immortal. His son-in-law is keen to be involved in the experiment, but an attempt to apply the same to the scientist’s daughter goes horribly wrong – in a way that is more comic than horrible (although it should not be) – and, well, you can pretty much plot out the rest of the story for yourself. If you like 1970s British horror films, then this is a hit of the pure stuff. I happen to like them. Actual fans of actual horror films, especially twenty-first century horror films, may not be so impressed. Their loss.

Avengers: Endgame, Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2019, USA). I had to watch this twice, and the preceding film, Avengers: Infinity War, in order to figure out what was going on, or indeed why I even cared what was going on, because this was just complete bollocks from start to finish. And not even well-made bollocks. So super-baddy Thanos, he of the mighty chin, collected these magical stones and effectively controls the universe, and the Avengers are sucking their wounds back on earth, when Antman reappears from the Quantum Zone and kickstarts a plan to undo Thanos’s victory and save the earth. Which involves some sort of time travel, explained in dialogue in what has to be the biggest load of consecutive bollocks spoken by half a dozen actors in any motion picture since Hollywoodland became Hollywood. There is also a giant battle scene which features some really bad CGI, and a horrible fan-service moment in which all the female heroes line up behind Captain Marvel to kick some ass and are basically trashed in under ten seconds and that’s it. And then the whole thing turns into a Robert Downey Jr vanity project, and you start to wonder why you just wasted the last 90 or 120 or 1 million minutes watching this crap. I mean, Thor, an actual god, is not powerful to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones, Hulk is not strong enough to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones… but in the heat of battle, Tony Stark can slip it on and snap his fingers and rewrite the entire universe. FUCK OFF. That’s the sort of shit a twelve year old would write. Marvel – and DC too, to be fair – has always had a problem with characters with wildly different levels of power that seem to change from one scene to the next. The films have not addressed this at all. When you think how the movie adaptations of Star Trek, from The Wrath of Khan onwards, actually nailed down the universe of the franchise, MCU’s failure to do so feels more like marketing cynicism than failure. I mean, Captain Marvel, the movie, demonstrates that Captain Marvel, the character, is more powerful than a god. But even she can’t prevail in Avengers: Endgame. Because plot reasons. It’s total bollocks. A failure of writing. Avengers: Endgame may have been one of the highest grossing films of all time, if not the highest grossing… but it’s an appalling piece of cinema, with little or no rigour, bad CGI, and a plot that confuses more than it explains. We don’t need, or want, the unholy tapestry MCU seem determined to stitch all the films into. We want good solid entertainment for 120 minutes. This is not it.

High Life, Claire Denis (2018, France). Denis’s Beau Travail is a great film and one that definitely belongs in my Top 100. And I seriously wanted  to like High Life, her first English-language movie, and not just because it was science fiction. But. I tried. I really did try. It opens with Robert Pattinson alone on a spacecraft, but for a baby. Flashbacks explain how convicts on death row were co-opted for a project to send spacecraft to other planets and colonise them. No explanation is given to how these journeys do not take centuries, although there is a line which explains they experience gravity due to constant acceleration (a bizarrely accurate statement in a film that has few nods to scientific accuracy). Anyway, the first hour of the film is Pattinson wandering around an empty spacecraft interspersed with grainy footage of his past. Which reminded me chiefly of video installations. If you want to see good video installations, check out Ed Atkins, Ben Rivers or Cécile B Evans. Anyway, High Life felt a lot like a non-genre person exploring genre, which is not in and of itself a bad thing and has in the past actually added to genre. But sometimes the smallest details can throw you, and in this case it was the fact the spacesuits were clearly not airtight and did not inflate in vacuum. It felt like such a trivial detail to not bother getting right. If the film-maker is going to throw in that line about constant acceleration, why fail so badly with the spacesuits? None of which meant that much, it must be said, when High Life dropped the video installation look and feel and went for “criminals in space do criminal things which mostly is rape”, and rape is not a fit subject for science fiction and certainly not a trope or plot point. Someone tell Denis this. My opinion of her took a beating after watching this film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941

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Moving pictures 2018, #23

Six films, six countries. It’s been a while since I managed that.

Oliver & Company, George Scribner (1988, USA). I have a vague ambition to work my way through all the Disney films – that’s vague, as in I’m not putting much effort into meeting it. So I added some Disney films I’d not seen to my rental list, and I watch them when they pop through my letter-box. But, to be honest, I’m not much of a fan. Sleeping Beauty I consider one of the most gorgeous animated films ever made, but that doesn’t make me a Disney fan. And Oliver & Company is a good example why. I’ve no idea who the DVD cover art is  meant to represent as the art is a great deal better than that in the film. Which is a rip-off of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, but with a kitten in the title role, and dogs playing most of the other roles. Although Fagin is a human. It’s not a bad spin on Dickens’s tale, to be fair, but Disney animated feature films live or die on the quality of animation and the songs. This one has one good song, sung by a lead character voiced by Billy Joel, but piss-poor animation. I was not impressed.

Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway (1991, UK). So many willies! I’m familiar with Greenaway’s oeuvre – in fact, I’ve been more or less following his career since first seeing one of his films back in the mid-1980s. I let it slide for a while, but caught up recently via rental DVDs. This particular film has been hard to find, but when I did track down a copy… there was lots and lots of full-frontal male nudity. Now, I hasten to add, I have nothing against male nudity, much as I have nothing against female nudity. I am not remarking on its presences, only its excessive presence. Although, I must admit, against what standard I have no idea. Apart from that, the most striking thing about Prospero’s Books is how much like his later films it is. It’s almost as if he were trying out a new way of telling stories on film, one that he went on to use in Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company – but not, I seem to remember, in The Pillow Book or 8½ Women, which were made after Prospero’s Books but precede the other films. Prospero’s Books stars John Gielgud in the title role, the sorcerer from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The other characters from the play also appear, but the film is very much about Prospero. And his library. As each book of his is introduced, so CGI brings it to life, both the writing and the subject. In between these are tableaux, over which Gielgud narrates, some of which are static, while others illustrate scenes from the books or allude to scenes from the play. It is a very clever film, and the CGI is very effective. I’ve never really been a fan of Greenaway’s most-celebrated film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (although perhaps The Draughtsman’s Contract is better known), but I’ve always thought he was a singular talent and I’m glad I returned to his films after a decade or more gap. It’s a shame there’s no handy box set of his works, but I expect that would be difficult to arrange given the multi-national financing of most of his films since The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Padmaavat, Sanjay Leela Bansali (2018, India). In thirteenth-century India, the nephew of the sultan of Delhi murders his uncle and seizes the throne and determine to be next Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, a local princess accidentally shoots a visiting Rajput prince with an arrow and wounds him. She nurses him back to health, the two fall in love, as you do, and get married. Then the new Delhi sultan’s plans for expansion send him up against Rajput, and the two kingdoms fight to the death. Padmavati, the Sri Lankan princess, leads the defence of Rajput capital Chittor with an army of women after her husband has fallen to the cheating sultan in single combat. And this is Indian history so it’s all hideously complicated and not really open to easy summary. But Padmaavat is, like Baahubali, one of the new breed of epic movies coming out of India that are CGI’d up to the eyeballs. Padmaavat looks fantastic. It is nowhere near as bonkers as Baahubali, and its battle scenes are somewhat more believable. But everything is giant, the castles are huge, the forests are humungous, and the armies number in the millions. It’s all completely OTT, but also hugely entertaining. Having said all that… I recently tried watching Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is another CGI-heavy retelling of, well, not history exactly, but the Matter of Britain, which I do know a little about. And Ritchie’s film is complete fucking nonsense. Giant elephants and dragon skeletons in tenth-century Britain? WTF? I don’t know the history of India – it’s an enormous country, I suspect no one really does it all – so I can’t say if Padmaavat, an allegedly historical film, annoyed Indian viewers as much as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword annoyed me. But perhaps I should have just gone with the flow – it’s a movie, not a history lesson – and accepted it as entertainment, which is likely what it was intended to be. Certainly, Padmaavat was entertaining. And if you have to watch two Bollywood films this year, then I recommend this one and Baahubali.

No Fear, No Die*, Claire Denis (1990, France). I knew this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but I had not known it was by Claire Denis until I started watching it. And, I suspect, there are other Denis films that deserve a place on the list more. Like Beau Travail. Which is, I think, a better film than this one. It doesn’t help that the story of No Fear, No Die revolves around cock-fighting, which is barbaric – no, it’s not a “sport” – and indeed the title is the name of one of the character’s favourite cockerel. Two guys from the Caribbean travel to France, and persuade a contact there that they can make money running cock fights. He provides the venue, they provide and train the birds. But it does not go as well as planned. The situation is further complicated by the attraction one of the two guys feels toward the French guy’s wife. In most respects, this is a typical French film of tangled relationships. The cock-fighting gives it an unusual edge, and metaphor, but it’s not something you really want to watch. The cast are excellent. But I can’t help thinking Denis’s Beau Travail looked better and was a more effective movie. It deserved to be on the 100 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Not this one, which is clearly held in such high regard it’s almost impossible to find on DVD…

No compteu amb el dits, Nocturn 29, Lectura Brossa, Pere Portabella (1967, 1968, 2003, Spain). There are 22 films in this box set, and I don’t think I could write intelligent reviews of each one so I’ll lump them together. I had hoped the films would be presented on the discs in the box set in chronological order, but apparently not. Anyway, I watched all three films on the first disc in the box set and… I have no real idea what I watched. Lectura Brossa is the least puzzling of them. An actress stands on a stage in front of a screen. A script is projected on the screen, which she reads. On the right side of the stage, a woman translates the words spoken into sign language (I don’t know which one, sorry). The story involves two characters identified only as “the boy” and the “the girl”, but then introduces “the wife” and “the husband”. It is by Joan Brossa, what also provided the scripts for the previous two films, and who is then interviewed in a short follow-on piece. Both No compteu amb el dits and Nocturn 29 are black and white. The first has a fake documentary/infomercial voiceover, the second uses strange electronic cracklings or discordant piano playing as its soundtrack. Things happen, with no seeming logic – a man takes a shower, a woman removes her make-up, a man visits a post office… these could have come from either film. There is something fascinating in the way a narrative forms out of the connections between the disparate scenes – although “scene” may be too strong a word, as many are simply short sequences in which, for example, a man exits a car, climbs some stairs, enters an apartment, and then sits down. The second of the two is clearly about Franco’s rule, with its film of military parades. The first attempts to mock consumption, and the fact the two films are so similar in presentation and technique, and were made within a year of each other, makes the wide gap between the subjects seem odd. This is good stuff. And I’ve still got another 19 films to go…

Haunting Me, Poj Arnon (2007, Thailand). Four drag queens run a boarding-house for young men. A young woman dies when she falls and bashes her head on a toilet. So she haunts the boarding-house. There’s another ghost too, another young woman, who fell from the roof while running from an attempted gang rape. The drag queens initially cover up the deaths, and employ a number of methods to try and exorcise the ghosts. None of which work. Gradually they realise they need to avenge the ghosts if they’re going to get rid of them. There’s not much to say about this film. It was fun, even funny in places. Annoyingly, the quality of transfer varied throughout the film – some scenes were really high resolution, others were blocky and pixellated. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907


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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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Moving pictures, #3

More culture splashed across the silver screen… although it’s a pretty loose definition of “culture” for some of the films I’ve seen over the past few weeks. More and more, I find myself avoiding recent Hollywood product (and I use the term “product” deliberately) in favour of arthouse or classic Hollywood films.

Rio Lobo, Howard Hawks (1970, USA) I freely admit Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) is one of my favourite films, and certainly my favourite Western, and I was aware Rio Lobo is often considered to be little more than Hawks having another bash at that earlier film. Like Rio Bravo, it stars John Wayne as a sheriff, who must defend a town against a cattle baron’s henchman and… The difference here is that Wayne was a Union officer and the film opens with an ambush by Confederate troops on a gold train he’s responsible for. Later, he meets the Confederate captain who commanded the ambush in a POW camp and the two become friends… and later allies against the evil cattle baron. A solid Hollywood western, but not a patch on Rio Bravo.

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Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) I forget why I put this on my rental list, possibly I’d seen it on some list of top films or something. I’d seen a few by Denis before, and while they were good I can’t say they’d blown me away. But Beau Travail… It’s set in Djibouti among soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, and is framed as the memories of a sergeant after the fact. A new recruit joins the troop and the sergeant becomes envious of his looks, ability and popularity. He tries to kill him by sending him out into the desert with a faulty compass, but the legionnaire survives. The film ends with the sergeant dancing, representing his suicide after failing to adjust to civilian life. It is quite brilliant. I’m pretty sure Beau Travail is going to make my best of the year. It’s also the third film I can think of that’s lifted from good to near-genius by an unexpected dance scene, the other two being François Ozon’s Water Drops On Burning Rocks (2000) and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 (1993, USA) So I finally got around to watching the final season of Next Gen, and now a week or two later I have very little memory of it all. I think I spent most of the time marvelling at how much make-up Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden were wearing. The plots of the individual episodes were, I seem to recall, rather dull and it all felt very formulaic and “the [tech] does the [tech] with the [tech]”. There were, as usual, some totally cringe-worthy episodes and, surprisingly, one featuring Lwaxana Troi that didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out (it was a bit barf-inducing, though). Ah well, seen them all now. Seen all of DS9 as well. Voyager next, I guess. Sigh.

Outpost 11, Anthony Woodley (2012, UK) The Second World War is apparently approaching its centenary and three men at a listening outpost – listening to Russian radio traffic (er, they were our allies during WWII) – are slowly driven mad by something strange out in the ice and cold. Everything looks a bit steampunk (er, the Victorian Age ended nearly forty years before WWII), the acting is terrible, and the pacing is abysmal. A film to avoid.

Gilda, Charles Vidor (1946, USA) Glenn Ford is a gambler in Buenos Aires shortly after WWII. He ends up working at an illegal casino – though you’d never guessed it was illegal from all the glitz – as floor manager. Some months later, the casino owner goes away on a trip and returns with Rita Hayworth, his wife. Cue smouldering hatred between Ford and Hayworth. Meanwhile, the casino owner is neck-deep in a cartel among tungsten mine owners. A quality Hollywood noir this one. Hayworth is mind-blowing. Definitely worth seeing.

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Queen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA) This was actually a rewatch, but it’s such a good film it’s worth mentioning again. It’s another US movie cobbled together from footage from two Soviet films – мечте навстречу (Mechte Navstrechu) and Небо зовет (Nebo Zovyot), with additional US-filmed material starring Basil Rathbone, John Saxon, Judi Meredith Florence Marly, and, yes, that is Dennis Hopper. Alien crashlands on Mars, Earth sends rescue mission, they find sole survivor Marly, but during journey back to Earth she proves to be a vampire and kills all of crew except Meredith and Hooper, who kill her. Marly is astonishingly good as the titular alien, Meredith is treated like just one of the crew (a gender-equal future society, in a 1966 film!), and the footage from the Soviet movies is weirdly beautiful. I love this film.

My Neighbours The Yamadas, Isao Takahata (1999, Japan) The cartoony Studio Ghibli film, in other words. The title pretty much says it all – the film is structured as a series of vignettes about the eponymous family. I quite enjoyed it, although the best Ghibli I’ve seen so far is still Only Yesterday, like My Neighbours The Yamadas also directed by Isao Takahata.

Project A, Part 2, Jackie Chan (1987, Hong Kong) When I was living in the UAE, I watched quite a lot of Jackie Chan films – they were readily available there on VCD. It’s nineteenth century Hong Kong and Chan is drafted in as police superintendent in charge of a notoriously corrupt district. With the help of the Marines, he cleans up the  district, battling the local kingpin, an Imperial Chinese spy and his henchmen, and the previous superintendent who has been promoted to a position where he can allegedly do no harm. Also involved are a bunch of Chinese revolutionaries  – which is who the Imperial Chinese spy is after. There’s lots of cleverly-choreographed action, including a brilliant sequence with some chilis, and it’s pretty much a pure hit of Jackie Chan comedy-action. Definitely worth seeing.

20 Million Miles To Earth, Nathan Juran (1957, USA) This was on Film4 one weekend afternoon, so I plonked myself in front of the telly and watched it. My expectations were low and it still failed to meet them. A spacecraft on a mission to Venus crashlands in the sea off Sicily on its trip back to Earth. Some Sicilian fisherman rescue the sole survivor, but a young local boy also finds a specimen jar from the rocket containing a blobby thing, which promptly grows into a Godzillary-type creature and subsequently terrorises the island. This is a B-movie, with a B-movie script and B-movie talent, and notable only because Harryhausen animated the ersatz kaiju. Eminently avoidable.

Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan (1947, USA) This was a surprise. I forget where I stumbled across mention of it, but it was a good call. Gregory Peck plays a journalist who’s just landed a top gig with a New-York-based magazine. He proposes an article series on anti-semitism, but initially finds it hard to present the subject in a way that will really get it across to readers. Eventually he decides that he will tell everyone he is Jewish, and experience anti-semitism for himself – he’s new in New York, so there’s no one around who’ll know different (except his editor, of course, his mother, and his WASP-y fiancée). And experience it he does. Both conscious and unconscious. The topic is handled intelligently and sensitively. Sadly, I doubt a film like this would be made today.

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Sons of the Desert, William A Seiter (1933, USA). Also, by various hands, We Faw Down (1928), Their Purple Moment (1928) and On the Wrong Trek (1936), which were all on the same disc. Sons of the Desert sees Stan and Ollie pull a fast one on their wives in order to attend the titular organisation’s annual bash in Chicago, which their wives have forbidden. Ollie fakes an illness, and the pair are allowed to travel to “Honolulu” to recuperate. Everything goes as planned… Except the ship the pair are allegedly returning on sinks. Just after they’ve lied their way out of trouble on that, the wives sees a newsreel about the Sons of the Desert parade in Chicago… and there are Stan and Ollie whooping it up. We Faw Down is a silent with an earlier version of the plot – Stan and Ollie want to attend a poker game so lie to their wives… only to get caught up in various shenanigans and consequently caught out. I thought it funnier than Sons of the Desert. Their Purple Moment is another silent – this time Stan & Ollie are out for some fun with some of Stan’s saved cash, they end up having dinner in a club with a pair of women (not their wives), but it turns out Stan’s wife has replaced his cash with coupons. Also a good one. Laurel and Hardy only make cameos in On the Wrong Trek, which is actually about another actor back from holiday telling his office mates about the disastrous week he’s just spent on the road to California with his wife and mother-in-law. There’s a quite good musical number, but that’s about all.

Red 2, Dean Pariscot (2013, USA) A bunch of oldies run around like twentysomethings, committing implausible mayhem and I completely forget what the actual plot was about. I’d dismiss this as complete tosh, but the script was pleasantly witty and though it trod a fine line it actually managed to avoid falling into stupid. It felt more like a European action thriller than a Hollywood one (amusingly, it featured a Russian aircraft masquerading as a USAF one, the precise opposite of all those Hollywood Cold War films…). For a beer and pizza night, you can do a lot worse than this film.