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Moving pictures, #52

Another bunch of films, of mixed quality…

trustTrust*, Hal Hartley (1990, USA). Hartley has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can’t honestly see why he even has one. I can only guess he was the US independent film-making scene’s darling in the 1980s. He doesn’t translate to the UK. Or perhaps it’s just me. Maria is dumped by her jock boyfriend when she tells him she is pregnant, and the news causes her father to die of heart failure. Matthew is an electronics genius who thinks he’s some kind of alpha male. The two become involved. And, er, that’s it. Everything is resolutely amateur, the characters are not at all believable, and the central story – the relationship – is neither engaging nor dramatic. I really don’t see the appeal of Hartley’s movies. I thought his The Unbelievable Truth was singularly unimpressive, and wondered at its presence on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I can only say the same of Trust. I will say, however, that Trust is very 1980s – but that’s hardly a compliment. Still, at least I can cross it off the list.

capsuleCapsule, Andrew Martin (2015, UK). Someone mentioned this film to me assuming I’d already know of it given its subject. But I hadn’t. So I checked it out, the DVD was cheap, so I ordered a copy… The story mostly takes place inside the first British spacecraft, which is supposed to have beaten both the US and the USSR into space. Now, I know all about bending the history of the space race, I have won awards for doing as much, after all – kof kof – and I’m fully on board with a British astronaut orbiting the Earth in 1959 in advance of both the USA and USSR. (Stephen Baxter and Simon Bradshaw wrote an excellent short story, ‘Prospero One’, on the same subject.) Unfortunately, I’m not in the slightest bit convinced by Capsule’s alternate history. Just look at the DVD cover, it looks like a Mercury capsule. Why would the British design a space craft that looked just like a Mercury capsule? And if they did, you’d expect the interior to resemble a Mercury spacecraft, where as the one in Capsule looks like the sort of interior designed by someone who doesn’t know much about spacecraft. And then there’s the story itself. By it’s very nature, it’s going to consist mostly of a camera focused on a single bloke in a pressure suit crammed inside said spacecraft. The plot of Capsule is about his dealings with the people on the ground through his radio – UK, USA and USSR. There is, I admit, a clever twist in the tale; but the journey to that point is not convincing and sadly lacking in drama. Disappointing.

nuummioqNuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland). One weekend, I tried to work out the countries from which I’d seen at least one film and, by extension, which nations’ movies I had yet to see. And Greenland was one of those countries on the not-seen list. So I went looking for some, discovered the Greenlanders had made several over the decades, and bought Nuummioq, AKA The Man from Nuuk, because it sounded interesting. A Greenlandic casual labourer finds his view of life changing when he is diagnosed with testicular cancer. He could get treatment, but in Denmark. Meanwhile, an ex-lover has returned, and the two rekindle their relationship. One of his two friends has an idea for selling glacier ice to gullible Westerners (don’t laugh, there’s already a brand of bottle water that boasts it’s made from glacier water), and he persuades the man from Nuuk to help him film a commercial. So they take their boat up the fjord into the country, where they normally hunt… and go stay with the sheep farmer, who has a complicated history with them and their families… And this is solid Nordic drama, well-written and well-acted, with some amazing Greenlandic scenery. I’m surprised it’s a not better known. I had to buy a DVD copy in order to see it, but it was by no means a wasted purchase. And I plan to watch more Greenlandic films too. Recommended.

le_boucherLe boucher*, Claude Chabrol (1970, France). I’ve seen half a dozen films by Chabrol, and I know he’s highly-regarded, but every film I’ve seen by him has felt somewhat meh. Le boucher was, I admit, much better than the others I’d seen. A man and a woman meet at a wedding in their village – he is the butcher of the title, she is the school mistress. They begin seeing each other. Meanwhile, someone has been murdering young women in the area. The school mistress’s suspicions gradually fasten onto the butcher, and when she finds his lighter at one of the crime scenes… The film plays the thriller plot very much as a social drama, and is far more concerned with the relationship between the two than it is the crimes being committed. For a start, the murders are off-stage, and second, the police are not presented in a flattering light – it is, not after all, about them and their investigation. Unfortunately, this does mean the final act, when the butcher realises he’s been rumbled, comes across like a cut-price The Shining. What most people are likely to remember of the film, however, is the school trip to the Grottes de Cougnac, a large cave system – althoughly, I suspect, chiefly from the weird scenery more than anything else. Le boucher takes an interesting approach to its story, and if it feels a more solid than innovative it’s probably because time hasn’t been especially kind to it. But on balance, I think it probably belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

bridge_of_spiesBridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg (2015, USA). In 1957, the FBI catches a Soviet spy. When it comes to prosecuting the man, a lawyer specialising in insurance law is asked to defend him. Rather than do the perfunctory job expected of him – because this is Tom Hanks, in a Steven Spielberg film – he is determined to see his client treated with fairness and dignity, and due process, and also avoid the death penalty. Which he manages, chiefly by suggesting the Soviet spy would then be available to trade in the future should the USSR catch a US spy. Which proves pretty damn handy when the Soviets shoot down Gary Powers in his U-2 and goes on trial in Moscow for spying. And so the two sides arrange a swap, but this turns complicated when  the East Germans grab a US student studying in Berlin, and while the US government is happy to let him rot in prison, Hanks insists he’s included in the exchange. While it’s certainly true that governments don’t seem to much care about the human cost when in pursuit of goals – especially those for the millitary-industrial complex or intelligence community – Spielberg’s career-long insistence that one good man can mitigate that tendency is getting both tiresome and damaging. Hanks specialises in playing an Everyman, and yet in all his films he is quite clearly something special to achieve what he achieves. It’s completely disingenuous. It’s like celebrating a billionaire for being a patron of the arts, when in fact society should not be relying on the largesse of the wealthy to fund the arts. Charity does not begin at home; it should be systemic. And interesting though historical incidents such as that in Bridge of Spies are, and no matter how well Spielberg evokes the era in his production design and photography, you’ve still got a film which presents the wrong message (look it up on Wikipedia – the film takes liberties with history; and Abel, the Soviet spy, was a fascinating man). Meh.

river_titasA River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). For the last couple of months, I’ve been putting A River Called Titas on when I’ve had a little too much to drink and I just want to sit back and just look at pretty pictures without having my intelligence beaten to a pulp. In the past, I’ve used All That Heaven Allows, Sokurov’s The Second Circle or Whispering Pages, or the first episode of Sokurov’s Spiritual Voices, or one of James Benning’s California Trilogy… but of late, I’ve been using A River Called Titas instead. Unlike those other films, it is black-and-white, and while it has a beginning, middle and end, it’s more a series of linked stories than an actual plot. It opens with two young girls, who live in a Malo village on the banks of the Titas River in what is now Bangladesh, discussing which of the village’s fishermen they will marry. Some fishermen from a village across the river visit the village during a festival, during which it is attacked. Kishore, one of those visiting fishermen, saves Rajar Jhi, and a marriage is arranged between the two. But on their journey to Kishore’s village, their boat is attacked by pirates, who kidnap Rajar. She manages to escape them and is taken in by some villagers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know her husband’s name, only the village from which he came. The story jumps ahead ten years. Kishore has lost his mind after losing his wife. Rajar now has a ten-year-old son, Ananta. She sets off to find her husband, and arrives at his village. But he does not recognise her. A young widow, Basanti, one of the two girls in the film’s opening, helps her. During a festival, Kishore and Rajar meet up. He carries her away, but is set upon by the villagers and beaten to death. Before he dies, he recognises Rajar as his wife. In trying to save him, she drowns. Basanti takes care of Ananta. This is by no means a cheerful story, and I’m not entirely sure what draws me to it. The photography of the river is beautiful, and the way the characters’ stories loop in and out of each other is cleverly done. (The film is based on a novel, of the same title, by Adwaita Mallabarman.) Like Satyajit Ray’s films, this is Indian realist cinema – although at least one of the cast seems a bit more Bollywood than everyone else – and the focus is very much on presenting Malo village life as it really existed. I’m not entirely sure what it is that draws me to A River Called Titas – and although I find the only other two films by Ghatak I’ve managed to source on DVD, The Cloud-Capped Star and Subarnarekha, equally excellent, they don’t draw me quite as strongly. Ghatak made eight feature-length films before dying of tuberculosis at fifty-eight; he also made a number of short films, and even wrote seven books… Only the three films mentioned above are available in the Anglophone world. This is very annoying – he has become one of my favourite directors. Even more annoying, the BFI version of A River Called Titas I own was made from a poor print. There is a Criterion box set which includes a restored version of the film. I want it. And I just know I will love a proper restored print of A River Called Titas so much more than I do my current copy.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 807

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Best of the half-year, 2016

A lot of people do best of the year posts, but I also like doing these best of the half-year ones, as I find it interesting to see how they change as the year progresses. The two sets of lists are rarely the same, of course – new works make each top five that I hadn’t read, watched or listened to in the first half of the year. But sometimes, works from the honourable mentions get promoted to the top five as my opinion changes of them.

books
Every time I write one of these best of posts, I seem to start them with: it’s been an odd year for reading but I’m not sure why… Which I guess means they haven’t really been odd since they’ve pretty much been the same. It could mean, I suppose, that the last few years have felt like my reading lacks shape or direction because it’s not in step with the genre commentary I see online. After all, while science fiction still forms the bulk of my reading at forty percent, with mainstream fiction a distant second at 26%, I don’t generally read the genre books which are getting the buzz… And when I do, as I did with this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, then I have no idea why those books are receiving so much praise… Which is no doubt why only one category sf novel makes my top five – and only two genre titles appear in my honourable mentions… And yes, the one sf novel in my top five is on the Clarke Award shortlist (because it’s an exception to my earlier comments, of course).

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I knew the moment I finished this book it would make my top five for the half-year, and I’ve not read anything since (I read it back in March) that has impressed me as much. I plan to read more by Erpenbeck – although not all of her books have been translated into English. Although not published as genre, either here or in Germany, its central conceit is certainly genre – a young woman, who is born in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives out her life during the turbulent years of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, she dies; other times, she survives. It’s a similar premise to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; it’s also beautifully written and feels like a much more substantial read. The historical side is handled with skill, and the view it gives on elements of European history during the period in question is fascinating. I wrote about it here.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990). Sebald is in a class of his own, so his presence in this list is probably no surprise. Vertigo is a collection of stories which have no overt link, but because of Sebald’s voice they read as a seamless whole. I’ve no idea how much of the novel is fact or fiction – it is, like Austerlitz, very autobiographical I suspect, but I’m not familiar enough with Sebald’s life and career to determine if parts of this novel – especially the section in which the narrator returns to his childhood village of W., notes the changes and reminisces about his time living in the village – although does not lessen my admiration of the book in the slightest (and learning the truth may well increase it). I’ve only read two Sebald books so far, and both made my best of the year lists. I still have one more, The Rings of Saturn, on the TBR. I think I should save it until next year. Anyway, I covered Vertigo in a blog post here.

europe3 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). It’s been a good year for this book, with appearances on various award shortlists. And rightly so. It’s not quite a sequel to the earlier Europe in Autumn, but it’s better for not being one. And thanks to the rank irresponsibility of our government in calling this stupid referendum, Europe at Midnight has become unfortunately topical. I say “unfortunately” because it’s obviously not the book’s fault, and although its creation of a pocket universe England might map onto the wishes of assorted Brexit fuckwits, I know the author’s sympathies don’t lie there and the novel’s Gedankenexperiment is in no way an endorsement of them. Of course, no one ever accused Le Carré of being pro-Soviet but then his novels presented the USSR as the enemy… And I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here as Hutchinson’s Community is also presented as the enemy. But never mind. I wrote about this book here.

agodinruins4 A Gods in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). Like the Hutchinson, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novel, Life After Life, although it neither continues the plot, nor uses the same cast, as its predecessor. I thought Life After Life good – an immensely readable novel – and even nominated for the Hugo (of course, it didn’t make the shortlist). A God in Ruins is, I think, slightly better. Its central conceit is dialled back more in the narrative, but it’s just as hugely readable as Life After Life. A God in Ruins is the story of the life of a man who fought during WWII and so tries to live a blameless live afterwards. It is, sort of, a variation on A Matter of Life and Death; but in a way that is neither obvious nor intrusive. For much of its length, it’s a lovely piece of historical writing, of personal history stretching much of the length of the twentieth century; but there’s an added dimension which is only hinted at. I wrote about it here.

abandoned5 Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). It’s all very well celebrating the achievements of past years, but often all we have as evidence are words in books. True, there is evidence aplenty on the surface of the Moon to prove that twelve men once walked there (assorted fuckwits who insist it was all faked aside), but in order to view that evidence we would have to, er, visit the surface of the Moon. There is, however, a lot of evidence remaining on Earth that something involving trips to the Moon took place – launch platforms, rocket test stands, etc – and it’s hard to imagine anything with such concrete (in both senses of the word) physicality being part of a great confidence trick. Is there a word which means the opposite of “paleo-archaeology”? Hunting through the abandoned remains of great engineering projects from last century, which either failed or have long since run their course? Neo-archaeology? This book celebrates one particular engineering project that ended over forty years ago – and it’s one that’s fascinated me for years. I wrote about Abandoned in Place in a post here.

Honourable mentions: Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (2015), an excellent reprint anthology of feminist sf, containing a couple of old favourites, and much that was new to me – some of which became new favourites; Soviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014), another photographic essay, this time of abandoned buildings and plants in what was the USSR and its satellites; Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015), strange goings-on when a 1970s UK folk band record at a haunted manor, handled with a lovely elegiac tone; Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015), a new collection by a favourite writer, so of course it gets a mention; In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, Malcolm Lowry (2014), a “lost” novel and never before published, it’s certainly not among his best but the copious annotations make for a fascinating read; Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920), his best-known novel after Lady Chatterley’s Lover and just as notorious back in the day for its rumpy-pumpy, but I love Lawrence’s prose… and if the philosophy and politics in this are somewhat dubious, I still have that; and The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993), not since Alias Grace have I read an Atwood novel I enjoyed so much on a prose level, so for me this is currently her “second-best” book.

films
My project to watch all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is now in its second year and has continued to introduce me to new directors I might otherwise never have discovered. Two films in my top five certainly qualify as such, and a third I’d long been aware of but would probably never bothered watching if it hadn’t been on the list. Of the remaining two, one was on the list but I’d seen at least one film by the director before; and the other movie was on a version of the list different to the one I’ve been using…

autumn_avo1 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). My introduction to Ozu’s work was Tokyo Story which, at the time, I didn’t really take to. But he has been repeatedly recommended to me, and Floating Weeds was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I rented it… and liked it quite a lot. But the (I think) Criterion edition DVD cover art of An Autumn Afternoon reminded me a great deal of Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Red Desert, a film I love, so I wanted to watch that. And after a false start, buying Late Autumn by mistake, but loving it all the same, I eventually got myself a copy of An Autumn Afternoon… And that convoluted route to it totally worked in its favour. Late Autumn I thought really good, but An Autumn Afternoon struck me as a somewhat satirical take on similar subject matter – and so perversely reminded me of my favourite Douglas Sirk movies – but it also seemed a distillation of all those elements of Ozu’s cinema I had noted in Tokyo Story and loved so much in Late Autumn. I have now added the rest of the BFI editions of Ozu’s films to my wants list.

entranced_earth2 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). This wasn’t quite a “Benning moment”, where I loved a film so much I immediately went and bought everything I could find by the director… although I did indeed love this film and immediately went and bought everything I could find by Rocha. But, I must confess, wine was involved in the Rocha purchase, whereas it wasn’t in the Benning one. Not that I regret buying Black God White Devil, Entranced Earth or Antonio das Mortes, as all three are fascinating films – but Entranced Earth remains my favourite of the three. Not only is the Brazilian landscape unfamiliar enough I find it strangely compelling, but the film also features scene of political declamatory dialogue, which I love. The film is part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which seems to be like France’s Nouvelle Vague in parts but Italy’s Neorealism in others. There’s a crudity in production which, perversely, seems a consequence of, as well as an enabler for, a film closer to the director’s vision than might otherwise have been the case. And I really like that, I really like that movies like this are closer to the creative process than is typical in our commodified homogenised product-placement Hollywoodised cinema world. There are those directors who muster sufficient clout in their nation’s cinema industry they can make whatever they like, but there are also those who make great films because of their total lack of influence… and it’s the latter who often produce the more lasting work. Like this one.

qatsi3 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I’ve no idea how many years I’ve known about this film, but I’d never actually bothered watching it. Something about what I’d heard about it persuaded me I wouldn’t enjoy it – and while that may have been true twenty years ago, it could hardly be true now given my love of Benning’s work. But it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I stuck it on the rental list, it duly arrived… and I was capitivated. The score and cinematography worked perfectly together – and while it’s a more obvious approach to its material than anything by Benning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautifully-shot piece of work. I ended up buying the Criterion Blu-ray edition of all three Qatsi films, which, in hindsight, was a mistake, as the transfers of the first two don’t really do the format justice. The sequel, Powaqqatsi, is very good, although not as good as Koyyanisqatsi; but the third film, Naqoyqatsi, sadly suffers because its use of CGI (in 2002) makes it appear a little dated. All three are worth getting. But not on Blu-ray.

nostalgia4 Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). The problem – if that’s the right word – with documentary films, is that no matter how beautifully-shot they might be, if the subject does not appeal then you’re not going to like the film. But then it’s not really fair to say the subject of Nostalgia for the Light “appeals”, because it’s an unpleasant subject and no one’s world is a better place for knowing about it. Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the hunt for stars by astronomers at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the search for the remains of the Disappeared, the thousands of victims Pinochet’s brutal regime massacred for… whatever feeble-minded self-serving reasons such fascist regimes use. It’s a heart-breaking film, all the more so because it interviews those who survived the regime; but Guzmán’s intelligent commentary also gives context and commentary to the interviews. I now want to see more films by Guzmán – and oh look, there’s a boxed set of his documentaries available on…

pyaasa5 Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). There are a couple of Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and so I rented them and enjoyed them; and while they may be superior examples of the genre (if “Bollywood” could be called a genre) and great fun to watch, to be honest they struck me as no more worthy of inclusion than a great many of the US films on the same list. But then I stumbled across a list of Bollywood classic films, and decided to try a few more than the two or three on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… Which is how I discovered Guru Dutt. He’s been described as “India’s Orson Welles”, which I think is a somewhat unfair label as it suggests he’s an imitator; but while Dutt’s films certainly follow the forms of Bollywood movies, they’re also well-constructed, cleverly-written dramas. After seeing Pyaasa, I bought a copy of his Kagaaz Ke Phool, which I also thought very good; and I have his Aar Paar on the To Be Watched pile (as well as the 1985 film of the same title, because the seller buggered up my order). I think Dutt would be a perfect candidate for the BFI to release on DVD/Blu-ray.

Honourable mentions: Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali), an old Malian fantasy tale told in a straightforward way that only highlights its strangeness; Come and See, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia), the banal title hides a quite brutal look at WWII in Russia; Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA), a low budget thriller that rises above its production values, but then Fuller was good at that; Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles (1966, Spain), a mishmash of Shakespeare’s various depictions of the title character, but it works really well and after watching it my admiration of Welles moved up a notch; Story of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France), a heart-breaking story of France’s mistreatment of its women during WWII, played strongly by the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert; Osama, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan), an even more heart-breaking film about the mistreatment of women by the Taliban; A Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia), a stark and beautifully-shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’; Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22, Hideaki Anno (2007/2009, Japan), giant mecha piloted by high school kids battle giant alien “angels”, which as a précis does very little to describe these bonkers animes; Storm over Asia, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia), a beautifully-shot silent film set in Mongolia; Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK), firemen during the Blitz by one of Britain’s best directors, but I probably need to rewatch his films to decide if this is his best; London, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK), it reminds me a little of Benning, but the arch commentary by Paul Scofield is hugely appealing; and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France), a mostly-silent, almost entirely unadorned depiction of three days in the life of the title character, which makes for fascinating viewing despite its lack of action or, er, plot.

albums
You’d think that given the amount of music I listen to that this would be the easiest category to fill in each year. But, perversely, it usually proves the hardest. Probably because I don’t document my music purchases and I rarely write about music. I also don’t purchase albums in anything like the number of films I watch or even books I read. Having said all that, I managed to pick five albums I first listened to in the first half of 2016, and they are…

no_summer 1 A Year With No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016). I saw this band perform at Bloodstock in 2014 and thought them so good I bought their album as soon as I got home. And now, after four years, a second album finally appears. In some respects, Obsidian Kingdom remind me of fellow countrymates NahemaH and Apocynthion, although they’re not as heavy as those two bands. They’re progressive metal, of a sort, and they build up a wall of sound with guitars and drums, not to mention the odd electronic effect, that’s extremely effective. The songs are complex, often very melodic, and move from dreamy to aggressive and back again very cleverly.

afterglow 2 Afterglow, In Mourning (2016). I’ve been a fan of In Mourning since first hearing the monumental The Weight of Oceans, which remains one of the best progressive death metal albums of recent years. Afterglow doesn’t start as strongly as that earlier albums, but a couple of tracks in it turns more progessive and the melodic hooks which characterise the band begin to appear. By the time the last song fades away, you know it’s another excellent album.

rooms 3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016). The name of a band isn’t always a clue to its origin, but yes, Todtgelichter are German. And they play a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal that works really well. Most post-black bands – I’m thinking of Solefald as much as I am Arcturus – tend to incorporate all sorts of musical influences; but Todtgelichter keep it simple and heavy and hard-hitting, and it works extremely well.

eidos 4 Eidos, Kingcrow (2015). It’s an entirely international line-up this top five, with Spain, Sweden, Germany, and now Italy. Kingcrow play progressive metal, although this is no Dream Theatre. They sound in parts very like Porcupine Tree – which is a perfectly good band to sound like – and on one track, ‘Adrift’, the main guitar part is almost pure Opeth. As influences go, you can’t really do better than that.

changing_tides 5 Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016). I stumbled across Trauma Field a year or two ago when I found their 2013 album Harvest on bandcamp. It seem to me there were bits of fellow Finns Sentenced in there – although Sentenced never used a female vocalist that I can recall – but also a more progressive element than that band had ever incorporated. This new album feels a little lighter in tone, much more atmospheric, and is definitely less Sentenced-like… which is, of course, good.

Unfortunately, there are no honourable mentions so far this year. I’ve just not been listening to enough new music. I do most of my listening at work, and I’ve been so busy there I’ve not had a chance.


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Moving pictures, #12

You do realise I’m never going to manage to see all of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Some of them are no longer available – not just in the UK, but anywhere (I’ve had to purchase some from the US already, just to see them). Sadly, this doesn’t mean I will never die. But if I can say I’ve seen over 950 of them – with dates – then I’ll be happy. And, oh look, there’s another three from the list in this installment…

boyznthehoodBoyz N the Hood*, John Singleton (1991, USA). This was not a film on my radar but, as the asterisk indicates. it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… so I bunged it on (one of) my rental list(s), and lo it duly arrived. And, to be honest, I can remember very little about the film. I seem to recall expecting some sort of gangsta movie with a rap soundtrack, and being surprised to discover it was actually about growing up in South Central LA. At least, the first part of the film is… And then it’s about the Crips and the Bloods, and Cuba Gooding Jr trying to avoid becoming a gang member even though most of his friends are in the Crips. While I was watching it, I tweeted “A+ for social commentary, D for direction” and “oh, and D for casting Cuba Gooding Jr”. Later, I added “the Kenny G soundtrack is not helping this film”. I can see how Boyz N the Hood belongs belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list for its cultural impact, but it wasn’t a film I found especially interesting or impressive. But at least I can cross it off.

clerksClerks*, Kevin Smith (1994, USA). It seems to me Kevin Smith trades on his geek credentials, but has actually proven relatively successful because he is sophomoric. I’ve seen a number of his films over the years, and never been much impressed – but I’d somehow managed to miss the film which made his career, Clerks. I’ve now seen it… and all those years, well, I don’t think I’ve missed much. Two whinging slackers work in neighbouring stores, a mini-mart and a video rental. Their conversation is either prattish or sophomoric. The attempts at humour are not actually that funny, and the continual whinging tone gets annoying very quickly. I can sort of understand how the film would appeal to a particular demographic – but I’m not in that demographic, and so Clerks simply doesn’t work for me, and I can think of no good reason why it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

busbyFootlight Parade*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I tweeted while watching this film that Busby Berkeley had made a career out of jumping the shark. And this film provides as much evidence as any in which he was involved. James Cagney plays a fast-talking director of musical theatre, but audiences are declining thanks to that new-fangled cinema. So Cagney comes up with the idea of “prologues”, short musical numbers performed on stage in a cinema prior to the main feature being shown. Much of Footlight Parade is a sort of like Chorus Line, as Cagney tries to stage his numbers while a rival steals his ideas. Dick Powell grins his way through the proceedings as usual, Joan Blondell plays Cagney’s secretary who’s secretly in love with him, and Ruby Keeler removes her glasses and goes from secretary to my-gosh-you’re-beautiful star dancer… But it’s Berkeley’s staging of the musical numbers which is the main draw. And with good reason. ‘By A Waterfall’ is jaw-dropping. I suspect it’s what invented synchronised swimming. One hundred chorus girls dive into a glass pool and form shapes like a giant human kaleidoscope – and all allegedly taking place on a tiny cinema stage! I had to buy a Region 1 Busby Berkeley DVD collection in order to watch this film – the set also includes 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935 and Dames – and I’m quite glad I did. I knew who Berkeley was, of course, and in the past I’ve seen some of the muscial numbers he’s famous for – although don’t ask me which films, because I’ve no idea – so I pretty much knew what to expect. But even if it’s easy to see why Cagney switched to playing gangsters, and all five films in the collection follow the same Chorus Line-like plot, they were worth the money because of the Berkeley numbers alone. Footlight Parade is one of three films in the set on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – and yes, I can understand why they’re on it.

storyofwomenStory of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France). This film does not appear on the 2013 edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is the one I’m using, but does appear on the amalgamated version on listchallenges.com – so at some point it was, or will be, on the list. Given that it was released in 1988, I suspect it was on an earlier version – and, if so, it’s a shame it was dropped. Because it’s a damn sight better than many films which remained. And I say that as someone who has yet to really click with Chabrol’s oeuvre. But then, perhaps it’s the subject matter of Story of Women, which is based on a true story. During the German occupation of France in WWII, in a small town in Normandy, a middle-class mother played by Isabelle Huppert (one of the best actresses currently making movies) helps a pregnant friend abort (husband away at a German work camp, Nazi lover…). This becomes a lucrative business. She also rents out a room to a prostitute friend. Her husband, an injured war veteran, returns home, but she is no longer in love with him. Eventually, he grasses her up to the authorities. They arrest her, and decide that performing abortions is treasonous – so they sentence Huppert to death, and guillotine her. It’s an offensively male argument – that France needs to regain its moral strength after its defeat by the Nazis, and Huppert’s death will do this. Yet, for much of the film, during the period before she is arrested, Huppert’s character is resolutely pragmatic – she betters the lot of her family by providing a much-needed service, for which she charges. She has an affair with a collaborator, because she is focused on herself and her children, and her husband is inconsequential. I find Chabrol a mixed bag, but this was a strong film, undoubtedly carried by Huppert’s performance. I suspect it deserves to be back on the list – and I can think of at least a dozen movies whose place it can take…

showgirls2Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven, Rena Riffel (2011, USA). Several years ago, I went through a phase of enjoying “so bad they’re good” films, despite being all too sadly aware that the films were “so bad, they’re actually really bad”. You know, stuff like the “mockbusters” released by The Global Asylum, or those shitty straght-to-video sf films you find on 4-movie sets sold in Poundland… Happily, I grew out of it. Or at least, I thought I had. Now, I like Paul Verhoeven’s movies, and I have a lot of time for him as a director, and though his Showgirls has a lot of problems and is clearly his worst film, it is sort of watchable. But the moment I discovered there was a sequel to it… I decided I had to watch it. And now I have. And I sincerely wish I hadn’t. Rena Riffel played a minor character in Showgirls and, after a couple of decades in Europe making soft porn films, she realised that what the world really needed was a sequel to Showgirls – and not just any sequel, it needed a parody sequel. Argh. “Parody”. If you see that word in the description of a film, avoid the film. Showgirls 2 spoofs scenes from Showgirls, but on a budget of $30,000 and with a cast that can’t act to save their lives. A few of the original cast do make appearances – not the main stars, of course – but the film is very much about Riffel’s lap-dancer Penny Slot, and her attempt to become the lead on a cheap TV show called ‘Star Dancer’. It’s not funny, and it’s certainly not clever. It is, however, embarrassingly, cringe-inducingly, bad. Words cannot express quite how awful this film is. One to avoid, if you value your sanity.

terminatorTerminator Genisys, Alan Taylor (2015, USA). And from the sublimely stupid to, er, this one. Which, on paper, should not be the hot mess it proved to be. On paper, the idea has merit – let’s tell the Terminator story from the point of view of Kyle Reese, the man sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, and who becomes John Connor’s father… but let’s mix it up a bit and have the T-80 arrive earlier and so be a fixture in Sarah’s life when Kyle arrives. And let’s mix it up EVEN MOAR and make John Connor a villain – the going-back-in-time thing is all a plot to enable Skynet not disable it. And, you know, it could have worked. But they recast all the leads (because, let’s be honest, they’re getting on a bit, and CGI-ing them back to their 1984 appearance would be very weird), except Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while they wrote in a reason for his ageing, the years have not been kind to him or his minimal acting ability… And while a new cast is not in and of itself a reason for failure – recast reboots have been successful, although no example springs readily to mind – and when you add in the self-referentiality of the project… so why did it turn out be so crap? Well, itt’s completely lifeless. I don’t know if it’s because the lead characters are charisma-free zones, or if Schwarzenegger sucks in their charisma to power his own over-written role. Or maybe it’s that the plot sheds sense as it progresses. I’m not really sure. All I can say for certain is that this was a dreadful film and my expectations were not especially high to begin with. A proper review of it would be more analytical, but these posts are not intended to analytical and to be analytical of this film would require I watch it with a great deal more attention than it actually deserved. A film to be avoided, at all costs.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 734


4 Comments

Moving pictures 2016, #6

Cracking on with these…

yeelenYeelen*, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali). I had to buy a copy of this as it’s only available on DVD in the US. That seems to be true of a number of films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. In fact, the cinema of African nations is poorly represented on DVD in the UK altogether. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun from Chad has three titles available out of six; Ousmane Sembène from Senegal also has three out of a dozen; and Souleymane Cissé from Mali has none – to name only three directors. Having now, with Yeelen, seen films by all three of these film-makers, I wish more of them were available. Haroun’s Daratt and Sembène’s Moolaadé are both excellent, but Cissé’s Yeelen is something special. It’s based on a Malian legend, probably from the thirteenth century, and depicts a young man with magical powers as he passes through various kingdoms, pursued by his father. It’s all slightly mad, in a way that makes sense within the story. When the young man, Nianankoro, tells someone they can’t move because of his magic, then they’re frozen. And remain so until he tells them otherwise. I’ve had to buy a number of DVDs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list simply in order to watch them, but not all of them have been keepers. This one, however, definitely is. I loved the world it presented, I loved how well it presented it. Recommended.

road_to_corinthThe Road to Corinth, Claude Chabrol (1967, France). I’ve seen a number of Chabrol’s films, but I don’t think this one is held in especially high regard, even by his fans. It was free on Amazon Prime, which is why I watched it. It wasn’t very good. A magician entering Greece by car is stopped by the police, who search his vehicle… and find a mysterious black box full of electronics. During interrogation, the man admits the box is one of many scattered throughout Greece will jam a NATO radar network; the man then bites on a cyanide pill. Then there are two CIA agents, and when one is killed, his wife investigates his death, despite being told not to by the CIA and the Greek authorities. With the help of the other agent, she figures out where the black boxes are hidden, there’s a showdown with the villain, who gets his just desserts. A particularly charmless thriller: not even the setting could make up for the lacklustre performances and nonsense plot.

demyLady Oscar, Jacques Demy (1979, Japan). Demy obviously liked a bit of variety – Lady Oscar is an historical film set in France, filmed in the UK with an English cast, and based on a Japanese manga. Some mentions of the film claim that Lady Oscar hides her gender, but she is openly a woman, she just dresses like a man and plays a man’s role as body guard to Marie Antoinette. She’s even in a sort of relationship with her childhood friend. But that doesn’t go so well, and they don’t meet again until the Revolution and the assault on the Bastille. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film – it seemed well enough directed, although never quite wholly convincing as the plainly low budget had prevented a serious recreation of the period. The cast were passable in their roles, without standing out. But it all felt a bit, well, uninspired. Like an historical film lacking that certain something to make it spark. I’ll no doubt watch it again at some point, but a first pass didn’t impress.

immortalThe Immortal Story, Orson Welles (1968, France). I didn’t realise until five minutes into this that it was an adaptation of a Karen Blixen story I’d read only a month or so before. Unfortunately, that pretty much spoiled it for me. The story, as the title implies, is quite memorable. A nasty rich man hears a story about a sailor who is approached one day ashore by an old man who tells him that he needs his services and will pay for them. The old man has a young wife but is without an heir. He’d like the sailor to sleep with his wife and hopefully make her pregnant. But the rich man, who is near death, is told by his assistant that the story is an urban myth – every sailor knows a sailor it has happened to. So the rich man decides to make it come true, so at least one sailor can tell the story truthfully. He hires Jeanne Moreau to act as his wife, and then goes looking for a sailor… I really should watch more of Welles’s films – those I’ve seen I’ve thought generally good, and while this is one of his lesser works, his oeuvre is certainly one that few US directors can boast (although commercial success seems to have mostly eluded him, given that his films were made in a variety of countries). Having said that, in this case I think you’d be better off reading the Blixen story (and, to be honest, I’d sooner Welles had adapted ‘The Tempest’, a better story, I thought, than this one).

fassbinder1The American Soldier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). Not to be confused with Wim Wender’s The American Friend, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith Ripley novel. The American Soldier is an early Fassbinder, filmed in black-and-white, about a man hired by three police officers to kill various villains in the city. Having worked my way through the second volume of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder collection, I’m discovering that’s no real preparation for the first volume. The films in this collection date from 1969 to 1972, when Fassbinder was starting out. On the one hand, they include experimental works which appeal to me – The Nicklashausen Journey, for example – but on the other they also feature early black-and-white films that feel like student works. This one feels too consciously a commentary on US noir films, borrowing their imagery and tropes – and there is, sadly, nothing ironic in appropriating tropes from a popular artform and giving them a local application. Or rather, it might seem like a good idea at the time, and even for a year or two afterwards, but it doesn’t stand the test of time – and while the films from this collection I have so far watched certainly showcase Fassbinder’s excellent eye for cinematic drama, some of his early works could clearly have done with more New German Cinema and less Hollywood plagiarism. Nonetheless, it’s worth picking up both volumes if you’re a cineaste.

londonRobinson in Space, Patrick Keiller (1997, UK). Robinson in Space follows the same pattern as London (see here), with Paul Scofield recounting anecdotes about Robinson as the camera focuses on various part of England. To be honest, I don’t recall what the film is actually about, it’s a bit like listening to that really interesting bloke telling his stories down the pub, but instead of looking at his ugly mug you see the towns and countryside of England. I plan to watch more Keiller, and indeed watch this film again – and I think it bears repeated rewatchings. Like Benning’s films, despite Scofield’s narration, there is so much more there than appears on the screen, and part of the appeal is in figuring out the narrative which accompanies the voiceover and visuals. Having said that, I suspect there is something very personal about one’s reponse to this film – it is about Thatcher’s Britain, and I lived through that period, it affected me directly, and I also saw its effects on others on a daily basis (but then I fled the country, but we won’t mention that). My point being that Robinson in Space felt somewhat academic in criticising Thatcher and her legacy, when I felt it needed to be more visceral. Perhaps it’s Scofield’s voice – he sounds too erudite and, well, comfortable. Surely a film about Thatcher’s Britain should involve pain and misery and deprivation? But now I’m probably projecting and I should move on…

chinese_ghostA Chinese Ghost Story*, Siu-tung Ching (1987, Hong Kong). I thought I’d seen this several years ago, but I think that might have been The Bride with White Hair, which I think I owned many years ago and which is also a Chinese ghost story but isn’t actually titled A Chinese Ghost Story. A young tax collector tries to collect his first debt and discovers his book of records has been ruined by the rain. Without any money, he is forced to spend the night in a haunted temple, where he meets a young woman and falls in love with her. But she’s actually a ghost, and even though he knows this he still goes back to spend another night there. And from that point on, it all gets a bit frantic, with a priest and master swordsman who helps the tax collector, a battle with a powerful tree demoness, lots of zombie-like ghosts, and a promise to bury the young woman’s remains somewhere more auspicious but which urn is hers? This is one of those films that, while enjoyable and perhaps even ground-breaking in its time, seems to struggle to justify its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I mean, I enjoyed it; but I also remember enjoying The Bride with White Hair, which is not on the list.

pret_a_toutPrêt à tout, Nicolas Cuche (2014, France). I’d actually tried watching some Richard Gere thriller on Amazon Prime, something about a Russian assassin long believed dead who kills a senator, so they bring in retired CIA agent Gere to track down the assassin except Gere is the assassin, and this twist is revealed in the first fifteen minutes… So I went looking for something else to watch and stumbled across Prêt à tout. Which proved to be much better. A slacker at college is in love with fellow student Alice, an activist. She, of course, is oblivious. But then the slacker and two of his mates invent a website which they sell for millions of dollars, and they decamp to Thailand to live the lives of the indolent rich. One day the slacker sees Alice on television, leading a strike at the failing powdered drink factory where she works. So the slacker buys the factory, but pretends to be just one of the workers in order to get closer to Alice. It doesn’t go quite as well as intended – she is still oblivious, even after he babysits her young son and the two become fast friends. Then the money runs out… An undemanding rom com, with a couple of likeable leads and a nice socialist spin on the usual rags to riches tale.

adalineThe Age Of Adaline, Lee Toland Krieger (2015, USA). A young woman crashes her car into a freezing lake, but a lightning strike revives her… and stops her from aging. That was in 1937. And throughout the decades following, she has remained twenty-nine years old, changing identities when needed. But at a New Year’s Eve party she meets an old beau, who doesn’t understand why she hasn’t aged… And there are lots of ways this film  could have gone, but it chose to take a good idea and turn it into mush. Which is a shame. It handles the period detail mostly well, the lead is a bit of a blank but I’ve seen worse, there are even a couple of familiar faces knocking about… but it all amounts to nothing since a week later I’ve completely forgotten what it was all about. And that’s despite liking the central premise and wanting to like the film. Hollywood does that to you – it says, here’s a neat idea that would make a good story, and here are some actors you’ve watched in the past and liked… and then you watch the film and you realise you can’t remember any of it. They should score films on that, decide if a film is a classic if someone can remember the plot a week after watching the movie. This one would fail.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 719