Seat 25, Nicholas Agnew (2017, UK). There’s an international mission to Mars, but it’s one-way. Twenty-four trained astronauts will be sent to settle the Red Planet, But there is room for one more, and that position will be taken by the winner of a lottery. A young woman in the UK wins the ticket, but is given time to break the news to her family – assuming, that is, she accepts – before it is announced publicly. It’s a neat idea and a good hook from which to hang a low-key drama. The world-building is very light, and mostly concerned with infomercials about the mission to Mars. The story stays entirely focused on the young woman who has won the seat: her life, her husband, her friends, her parents and in-laws, her colleagues… She keeps her win secret from them all, but kicks off a few “hypothetical” discussions to see how they would react if she told them she was going on a one-way trip to Mars. If this were all there were to the film, then it would be a neat little drama. Unfortunately, whoever wrote the script doesn’t seem to have advanced socially since the 1970s. Not only is the young woman brow-beaten by her husband, but the dynamics between the couple are a good thirty years old. And her in-laws crack jokes about people in Africa living in mud huts. Who does that? I heard shit like that when I was at school. And that was many decades ago. It wasn’t funny then either. Seat 25 could have been a good indie film, but it was ruined by gender politics and race relations from the 1970s.
M. Butterfly, David Cronenberg (1993, USA). This is based on a true story. A French accountant at the French embassy in Beijing was seduced by, and entered into long a relationship with, a Chinese opera singer who specialised in playing female roles. The accountant believed the singer was female and never learnt his true gender, even believing an adopted son presented by the singer was his natural son. Even though the Frenchman didn’t realise he was actually in a relationship with a man, and it was never revealed to him, the fact he was in a relationship with a Chinese national was enough leverage to “persuade” him to pass secrets to the Chinese authorities. This went on for two decades. And the Frenchman only learned the true gender of his lover when they were both arrested for spying in 1983. Cronenberg’s film is adapted from a 1988 play by David Henry Hwang, which takes some liberties with the actual story – mostly by compacting the chronology, as far as I could tell. When Cronenberg makes mainstream movies, I can’t honestly tell the difference between his work and any other director’s. The body horror stuff is obviously so signature that any film that doesn’t feature it doesn’t seem like a Cronenberg film. Which is a shame, as he’s an excellent director, and M. Butterfly tells its story entirely convincingly, more so, I think, because Jeremy Irons is perfect as the Frenchman. It works as a slightly off-kilter drama, but it’s off-kilter, I think, more because of the story than because of anything Cronenberg brings to it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.
Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Fernando Cerchio (1961, Italy). I wonder how many people don’t realise Italy had a huge film industry and churned out movies by the metre. It wasn’t all Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica or Visconti. There was a long series of Hercules films, for example. Not to mention all those “spaghetti westerns”, the sf movies, giallo films, and loads of international thrillers. Some had US stars in lead roles (usually ones whose careers were on the slide). Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile is, of course, an historical film, a swords-and-sandals movie, starring Jeanne Crain (who plays Nefertiti), Edmund Purdom and… Vincent Price. Purdom and Crain are in love, but high priest Price marries Crain off to the new pharaoh. Who happens to be best mates with Purdom. The romantic triangle is tangled up with the overthrow of the state religion, and the institution of a new monotheistic religion. But this is all standard fare: a mid-sixties mangling of history presented as melodrama. It just happens to be from Italy instead of Hollywood. The film also features several really fake-looking fights between Purdom and a lion. Avoid.
Madadayo, Akira Kurosawa (1993, Japan). This was Kurosawa’s last film and while not one of his signature samurai historical films it was definitely an historical film. It’s set in the late nineteenth century and concerns a retired teacher and those of his pupils he stayed in touch with. It’s immediately obvious from the first five minutes of this movie that Japanese teachers and pupils have a different relationship to those in the West. I mean, most of what I know about pupil-teacher relations has been gleaned from films; as indeed for UK schools, since I went to a public school (not a prestigious one) and it wasn’t unusual for pupils of that school to stay in touch with teachers on an irregular basis for a few years after they’d graduated. But in Madadayo, the “pupils” are young men starting their careers, and yet they visit their old professor, throw a party for him, and ensure his retirement is as intellectually rich as his career was. And they did this every year, for decades. Which unfortunately means Madadayo is not exactly heavy on plot. It’s an elegiac piece, the handing over from one generation to the next, embodied in a teacher and his pupils, which feels like the most obvious of metaphors, but… Madadayo is a nice film. It’s well-played, extremely well-filmed… but ultimately its story is so slight it’s a wonder it lasts 134 minutes. One for fans of Kurosawa, I suspect, although I did enjoy it.
Dumbo, Tim Burton (2019, USA). Disney seems to be on a mission to rebuild its brand in the twenty-first century, and it’s chosen to do so by creating “live-action” versions of its classic films, so kids can enjoy cutting-edge versions of old school animations their parents loved as children. As a strategy, it makes sense… but it’s resulted in some odd films. I can’t really see how a piece of Tim Burton whimsy is intended to appeal to the same market as the original Dumbo back in the 1940s. Sure, tastes have changed considerably since then, as have sensibilities. But this new Dumbo is a great deal darker than the original. For a start, it opens with a soldier returning home from WWI, minus an arm. His home is a travelling circus, owned by Danny DeVito, and he left his two children there while he was away fighting. The story more or less follows the original – as far as I know, as it’s been decades since I saw it – but all with that Tim Burton heightened reality look and feel. DeVito’s circus is failing financially and a successful rival wants to buy him out. But then his single elephant gives birth to a new calf, initially considered a freak because of his over-sized ears. Turns out the baby elephant can fly. And he’s a big draw. The circus’s fortunes begin to improve. But then millionaire Michael Keaton turns up and proposes a partnership between the circus and his New York amusement park. But all is not well at the amusement park, which does bear some resemblance to some sort of twisted Disney World, but the good guys triumph, there’s a a nice environmentally-friendly message, and even a somewhat perverse dig at corporatised entertainment. I’ve never been a Tim Burton fan, but this is the second one by him I’ve seen recently that stars Eva Green and, well, I sort of quite enjoyed it too.
Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg (2018, France). Back in the day, disasters such as the sinking of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered Oscar Class submarine, would have been the a natural subject for a made-for-television movie, with a cast of nobodies all speaking English with bad Russian accents. Instead, we get a French film with a Belgian star and a Danish director who co-founded the Dogme 95 movement with Lars von Trier. Needless to say, the Dogme 95 rules were not in force in Kursk. The story is well-known – submarine sinks after unexplained interior explosion, men are trapped, no rescue is made in time – but the film is very good on the Russian authorities’ poor response to the incident. Initially, they denied the sinking, then they delayed releasing details… The Royal Navy had already offered help but was rebuffed. Perhaps they could have saved some of the crew if given permission early enough, but it seems like pointless speculation. The rich and powerful will always protect their own interests first, whether they’re oligarchs or admirals. Kursk does an excellent job of presenting the interior of the submarine, both before and after the disaster, but it does all feel a bit like a CGI-fest. We have perhaps became too used to disasters from disaster movies, or just straight-up thrillers, such that we no longer feel compassion, or fear, for those in real peril. Kursk is a good film and worth seeing, for all that it’s framed as a disaster movie and they’re generally best avoided.
1001 Movies You Must See Before They Die count: 940
I need to get this backlog out of the way before I start my new life. It’s not that I’ve watched loads of films over the past two months, more that I’ve not been writing blog posts as often as before. Busy packing up the DVD collection, you see…
Parineeta, Bimal Roy (1953, India). In recent years, I’ve watched quite a few Bollywood films, but I admit I do prefer the historical ones – although they’re generally poor transfers and good condition copies are almost impossible to find. Parineeta wasn’t too bad, possibly because black-and-white seems to survive better than colour. Who knows. It’s the usual boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again story, this time complicated by the fact the two leads are from closely-knit neighbouring families, but his family are the rich ones and hers the impoverished tenants. She’s much put-upon, especially by her own family, and her relationship with the male lead grows over time, despite both their families trying to arrange marriages for them with others. The film is based on a novella by a popular Bengali novelist, which likely explains the almost Austen-esque feel to the plot (ie, its origin as written fiction, rather than a straight-up commercial Bollywood movie). The acting was a cut above usual, but the music was entirely forgettable. Say what you like about 1990s and twenty-first century Bollywood films, but they generally have memorable dance numbers (even if, most of the time, that’s all you remember of the film). Parineeta was good, a mix between parallel cinema and commercial Bollywood. Worth seeing.
The Lost City of Z, James Gray (2016, USA). I really did not like this film. It felt like Embrace of the Serpent made for fox-hunting inbred Tory morons. It’s apparently a real story, about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, but based on a book about Fawcett written by an American. Which might explain some aspects of the film… Fawcett is a promising young Army officer in the first decade of the twentieth century, but he’s not from the right sort of family. So instead of a prestigious posting, he gets seconded to the Royal Geographical Society as cartographer. This results in him being part of an expedition in Brazil, where he hears rumours of a fabled city of gold. This leads him back to Brazil a number of times in an effort to find it. So this is a film with a lot of tramping through jungle, or travelling up jungle rivers. And it’s all done from the perspective of Edwardians. The end result is a film which repels while covering similar to material that of far superior films. I’m only glad I found this free on Amazon Prime.
Force of Evil*, Abraham Polonsky (1948, USA). There are many US noir films considered cinema classics, and this is one of them. I’m not so enamoured of the genre as other seem to be, and can take its so-called classics more or less as I see them. Because Force of Evil, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is a good film, but not really a great film – and I’d expect the list to comprise great films. I have to wonder if Force of Evil made the list because of its subject: the numbers racket. As a study of how the numbers racket worked, and how established it was in everyday life, the film does an excellent job. But it does it in the guise of a noir film, with a successful lawyer to a mobster trying to save his principled older brother, who runs a small independent numbers game, from eventual mob take-over. Everything about the film is pure 1940s Hollywood noir – from the cast to the sets to the lighting to the story beats. One for fans.
A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg (2011, Germany). I’m not exactly sure what the title refers to, given this film is about the friendship between Feud and Jung, and Jung’s patient-turned-disciple Sabina Speilrein. She is brought to Jung and he attempts to cure her of her psychosis using his theories, and so discovers her intelligence and aptitude and eventually uses her as an assistant in his work. He refers her to Freud – to be fair, I had not known the two had worked together, but this film is based on real events – and she eventually qualifies as a psychoanalyst herself and returns to Russia to practice. Since Cronenberg went mainstream, there seems to be less distinguishing his movies from those made by his contemporaries. There was a definitely a singular vision to the work he did up until the turn of the century – especially in his early work, like Crimes of the Future – but A Dangerous Method could have been made by more or less anyone. Which is not to say it’s not well-made, nor that its story is uninteresting. But it’s not something that lingers, and Cronenberg fans won’t find much here to admire.
A Man Called Ove, Hannes Holm (2015, Sweden). The title of this movie, however, is plain from the first frame. Ove is a cantankerous old Swedish man who has never quite got over the death of his his wife. He is forced into retirement, even though his job is all he has, especially since his wife died six months previously. He tries to commit suicide, but is interrupted each time by his new neighbours, a woman of Iranian extraction married to a Swede. And through his friendship with that family, he reconnects with his community and discovers a new lease of life. It’s completely a feel-good movie, but it works because Ove is such a miserable bastard you actually start to feel sorry for him when he finds himself forced to go on living when his plans to end it all are repeatedly foiled. I had, to be honest, expected something humorous like The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (see here), but this was far from absurd. It was a gentle comedy about age and friendship, and it did it all without being overbearing or simplistic. Plus, it’s Swedish. Worth seeing.
The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). Sometimes you stumble across a film – this one was on the Cinema Paradiso website – and when the disc arrive you, you sit down to watch it with little or nothing in the way of expectations… And if you’re lucky the film blows you away, but more often it’s entirely forgettable. The Untamed did not precisely blow me away, but it was far from forgettable. It opens with a woman tied down in a barn, who then – willingly – has sex with a tentacled alien, which has been hiding out in the barn since it crashlanded. Meanwhile, another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. This film reminded me a great deal of Carlos Reygadas’s work, and not just because it’s Mexican. But it had the same sort of distant documentary feel I appreciate so much in movies, albeit with perhaps Yorgos Lanthimos’s oblique approach to storytelling (not that Reygadas is exactly direct). The end result is a film which starts out weird, then turns prosaic before circling back to weird and making that opening all of a piece with the whole. It also looks gorgeous, with some excellent cinematography. Escalante is name to watch. This is the fourth film he’s directed; I think I’ll try and track down the earlier ones.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 935
An almost entirely Anglophone group of films this time around, although one of them isn’t actually Anglophone as it takes place in Zambia and the dialogue is almost entirely in Chichewa (a member of the Bantu language family)… but the director emigrated to the UK when she was nine and the film was mostly funded by UK film production companies, so I’ve marked it as a British film.
Transfer, From the Drain, Stereo, Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg (1966 – 1970, Canada) The four films in this box set were originally included as extra features on the special edition release of Videodrome, but have since been released as David Cronenberg’s Early Works. I am not an especially big fan of Cronenberg’s works – I’ll happily watch them, and some of them I think are very good – but I’m not the sort to track down all his films, especially the ones that are hard to find, and buy them… although if they’re readily available, I’ll happily stick them on my rental list. I knew that Cronenberg’s first film was Shivers, followed by Rabid, which I’ve seen (see here), although I first came across his work when I watched Scanners some time back in the 1980s. The four films here, two of which are technically feature films as they’re over 40 minutes in length, predate Shivers, but since Cronenberg’s career is generally considered to have started with Shivers… Transfer has a psychiatrist and his patient sitting at a table in a snowy field and, to be honest, it’s a curiosity in the director’s oeuvre. Perhaps there are hints of the themes Cronenberg explores throughout his career, but it’s also one of those portentous films made by students who don’t realising they’re both re-inventing the wheel and producing something that isn’t round in shape. The same is true of From the Drain, which also features two characters in conversation, in this case, veterans of some future war. One for fans. But then there’s Stereo, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s the usual student over-emphatic nonsense, ostensibly about an experiment to boost telepathic powers, as far as the script is concerned – or rather, voice-over, as apparently no sound was recorded as the Bolex camera too noisy. However, it was filmed entirely on the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto and features some wonderful Brutalist and Modernist architecture, made all the more visually appealing for having been filmed in black and white. Crimes of the Future treads similar ground – thematically and literally, since it’s also filmed in Scarborough – but it also harkens back to those earlier films, albeit using voiceover again, and tried to be clever with its dialogue. Stereo is a little gem, a great piece of black and white Brutalism. The earlier two films feel like ingredients that fed into it; and the last film seems like a failed attempt to remake it. They’re for fans of Cronenberg, obviously, but I’m glad I watched them.
I am not a Witch, Rungano Nyoni (2017, UK). As mentioned above, this film is set in Zambia, using a local cast, with dialogue mostly in Chichewa, but the director moved to Wales when she was nine, and the film has been mostly funded by UK production companies. But really, it’s Zambian in all but its funding. It’s Nyoni’s first feature film too, although two of her earlier short films are also included on the disc – Mwansa the Great and Listen. A young girl is accused of being a witch and taken away to a camp where witches are imprisoned. The women there are loaned to local business as manual labour. Each one is attached to a long ribbon on a large bobbin. They cannot remove the ribbon, or they are punished. The girl proves to have a talent for spotting wrongdoers. When presented with a line-up of suspects for a crime, she can pick out the guilty one. This makes her useful to the bureaucrat responsible for the witches’ camp, and he uses her talent to better himself. It’s patently obvious that men have been using accusations of witchcraft to punish women who have rejected them – it’s even explicitly said, at one point. Of course, the young girl soon realises the power she has, especially the life that could be hers if she marries her protector, and so naturally she rebels. And, well, let’s just say the films does not have a happy ending. I thought this an excellent film. I’m not into film-making technique all that much, so the director’s inexperience, as outlined in other reviews, did not spoil my enjoyment. More interestingly, there were two shorts by Nyoni on the disc. The first, Mwansa the Great is a mildly amusing vignette set in a Zambian village, which shows a nice touch of the fantastic in realising the imagination of its child cast. Listen on the other hand, co-directed with Finnish/Iranian director Hamy Ramezan, is a much more powerful piece of work. An Arab woman in Denmark is being interviewed by two cops. She claims her husband will kill her if she is sent home. The cops do not understand Arabic, and the translator is wilfully playing down the woman’s situation. So they call in the son, who can speak Danish. He lies and tells the cops everything is fine at home because, he tells his mother, “I can protect you now”. It’s frightening how the woman’s communications are corrupted by others, so much so that the Danish cops respond differently to a woman who is quite clearly a victim. The commentary in Listen is obviously no different to that in I am not a Witch, even if the situations and settings are very different. Nyoni is clearly a name to watch, with a definite message that needs to be told.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Stanley Donen (1954, USA). I’m not a big fan of musicals, I think I’ve said that before. But I found this on Amazon Prime, so watching it wasn’t going to cost me anything, and it was a hot Sunday afternoon, and you know how it goes… I think the film also appears on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although not the one I’m using. A “backwoodsman”, Howard Keel, visits town looking for a wife. Jane Powell is sick of being treated like a drudge, so she accepts Keel’s offer despite only having met him an hour or two earlier. She goes home with him… and discovers he has six brothers. All of whom also want wives. So she basically knocks off their rough edges, teaches them how to treat women properly… and then they end up pretty much kidnapping six women to be their brides. Up until that last part, I was surprised to find myself enjoying Seven Brides for Brothers. Okay, so the songs aren’t exactly memorable, and a lot of the scenery is actually studio backdrops, but there’s plenty of humour, the dance-off at the barn-building is good, and the cast all play their parts well. It was a fun film. True, I expect to walk away from a musical remembering at least one of the tunes – if not with an earworm it takes me weeks to dislodge – but if I can remember one of the dance scenes then I suppose that’s a close second. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers will never be a favourite musical – and I’m slightly worried that such a concept should even occur to me – but I enjoyed watching it.
Paris, je t’aime, various (2006, France). This was lent me by David Tallerman. It’s an anthology film of eighteen short films by well-known directors, a mix of French and American, set in the city referenced in the title. And, well, there are too many Americans in it. The segments vary in length but all are shorter than ten minutes. I liked ‘Quais de Seine’ by Paul Mayeda Burges and Gurinder Chadha, in which a young Frenchman walks away from his sexist mates and becomes friends with a young Muslim woman; and ‘Place des fêtes’ by Oliver Schmitz, in which a Nigerian man is attacked by racists and connects with the immigrant paramedic who attends him. Most of the other segments didn’t seem to fit in with French cinema, such as Vincenzo Natali’s segment in which Elijah Wood meets a beautiful vampire, or the Coen brothers’ one where Steve Buscemi is beaten up by a young Frenchman. Of the segments which treated Paris as a destination for tourists, rather than a city with its own natives, probably the best was ‘Quartier Latin’ by Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu, written by Gena Rowlands, starring Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara and Gérard Depardieu. Out of the eighteen segments, the hit rate was too low to call the film a success. Only a couple were actively bad, but the whole project just seemed to have too heavy a US hand on it and that spoiled it. There is apparently a complimentary film set in New York, which seems more fitting, and less interesting to me, and several more planned: in Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Jerusalem. If they are equally aimed at the US market, I dread to think how they’ll turn out. Paris, je t’aime is not a film that celebrates the culture of Paris, it’s a film that uses it as a location to present a handful of Parisian stereotypes.
Sleuth*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1972, UK). I was pretty sure I’d seen this many years ago, but then realised I was confusing with a spoof Sherlock film, whose title escapes me, in which Watson was the clever one and Holmes a bumbling idiot. But that’s an entirely different film, and almost certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Unlike Sleuth. Which having now seen, I suspect I may well have seen many years ago. But I’m not sure. Olivier plays a successful writer of traditional crime novels. Caine is his wife’s lover, a hairdresser. Olivier invites Caine to his mansion and explains his cunning plan. He approves of their relationship and wants to give them a head-start. So they will fake a robbery, Olivier will claim the insurance, and Caine and ex-wife can keep whatever a fence will give them for the stolen jewellery. But Olivier, of course, has something else in mind – and shoots Caine as an intruder. The following day, an inspector turns up to investigate Caine’s disappearance, but Olivier insists it was all a joke and he only scared Caine by firing blanks. And… anymore would constitute serious spoilers. This is a film that relies entirely on the quality of its cast, and while Olivier is on top form, Caine also rises to the occasion. It doesn’t feel like a play, despite the use of pretty much a single location – the film widens it out a little, opening the film in a maze in the grounds of Olivier’s mansion, and making good use of movement throughout the interior of the house. Having said that, what really stands out about this film is the cleverness of its script, which was a play by Anthony Shaffer, so it seems a bit of a cheat to stick it on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s an excellent film, but that’s because it’s a good adaptation of an excellent play. It feels like a cheat, like it’s being rewarded for being something it isn’t. Worth seeing, definitely, but does it belong on the list?
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 926
Another good spread of films. The sole US one is actually a documentary about the making of a German film, and is included in the Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection.
Burden of Dreams, Les Blank (1982, USA). There are several famously difficult pieces of film-making, and perhaps the two best-known are Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Coppola’s film was documented in Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola (see here), so it should come as no surprise to learn there’s an equivalent documentary made during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. A comparison between the two documentaries in inevitable – both films were made in remote locations, with productions that spiralled out of control, a difficult marquee name, and a director with a far from firm grip on the production. Yet in Burden of Dreams Herzog comes across as jolly and mostly sanguine. There’s none of the expected despair. Kinski’s antics also don’t figure largely in the documentary, despite stories that the film crew offered to murder the star because of his outrageous demands and behaviour. Much of Burden of Dreams focuses on the logistics of the shoot, and the difficulties of dragging the riverboat up over the hill (they actually had three copies of the boat, by the way). Of course, there were also other problems – Fitzcarraldo originally starred Jason Robards in the title role, but he took ill and had to pull out. Watching him in the part, it’s clear it was better-suited to Kinski. Mick Jagger also played a supporting role, but when the shoot was delayed as they recast the title role, Jagger had to leave due to other commitments. They didn’t bother to recast, just wrote his part out of the film. Which was just as well as he was terrible. Of the two documentaries, I think Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is better, but that may simply be because Apocalypse Now is a more epic movie than Fitzcarraldo.
Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, Gottfried Koldtiz (1970, Germany). Back in the 1960s and 1970s, DEFA, the East German national film studio, made four big budget science fiction films. Three were made available in the US in a DVD box set around a decade ago – Der Schweigende Stern, Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea. I think the box set is deleted now, so it’s hard to find. But if you see a copy, snap it up. However, one of those four films, Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer, often described as East Germany’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has never been released on DVD (except perhaps in Germany… but the copy I watched was actually from a German television broadcast, so perhaps not). Anyway, a friend came round one Saturday evening – a German, as it happens – to watch some films, and I put Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer on. I’d been expecting good things of the film, as I like the other DEFA sf films, especially Eolomea, although I’d been told Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer wasn’t that good… And, er, it wasn’t. The spacecraft Ikaros is exploring near Jupiter when it’s hit by meteorites and suffers catastrophic damage. The crew survive, but they have no radio. A search for their wreck is unsuccessful, and they are presumed dead. But Commander Veikko is convinced they’re still alive and wants to try using his spacecraft, Laika. But he’s forbidden from doing so, and so uses a routine mission to service some satellites or space probes (it wasn’t clear which) to surreptitiously hunt for the lost spacecraft. Which he finds. And they rescue the stranded crew in the nick of time. What little plot there is in the film occurs in the last thirty minutes, the rest of it is just over-extended set-up. Including several scenes on a beach. I think there must have been a rule in East German sf film-making that required at least one beach-scene. And if the cast were riding horses, that was even better. A future party scene is also mandatory – although the one aboard Laika, to celebrate a crewmember’s anniversary, is cut short and seems entirely pointless. Also, confusingly, during the party the blonde wears a brunette wig and the brunette wears a blonde wig. Oh, and also apparently de rigeur in Warsaw Pact sf movies is a crap robot. And the one in Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer is only beaten by the one in Через тернии к звёздам. Despite all that, I’m glad I found a copy of Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and I’m glad I watched it. I might even rewatch it one day.
Небо зовет, Mikhail Karyukov & Aleksandr Kozry (1959, Russia). And after Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, we settled down to watch Небо зовет, a Soviet sf film I’d been wanting to see for ages, but had never managed to find a copy on DVD. And… It turned out to have an almost identical plot to Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer: one spacecraft has to rescue another. Even worse than that, I have a copy of Battle Beyond the Sun, which is pretty much an edit of Небо зовет dubbed into Engish and with additional monsters. So it made for an odd viewing experience. Небо зовет opens with a journalist being shown around an office where Soviet scientists are designing rockets and spacecraft. Inspired by the models he is shown in a museum at the office, he dreams of a future in which the USSR has an extensive space presence. And the screen goes all fuzzy… and we’re in that very future. The Soviets are about to send a spacecraft to Mars, but the Americans are determined to beat them (the US mission seems to be a private enterprise). The Americans steal a march on the Soviets, but come a cropper when their rocket encounters a meteorite storm. So the Soviets divert to rescue them, but this ends up with both crews being stranded on an asteroid, Icarus. An automated rescue mission is sent but spectacularly blows up. A second, crewed, is successful, but the crew die. However, the crew of the Soviet and the US rockets both survive, and are given a hero’s welcome when they return to Earth. The model work and production design in Небо зовет is excellent, and while the space station design, which resembles an aircraft carrier, seems a bit odd (their spacesuits have magnetic boots, so they won’t just float away), as do the giant clamps with which the rockets dock. But this is a 1959 film, and the Soviet space programme was very secretive (they didn’t even admit Korolyev’s existence until after glasnost). Небо зовет is fun in a dated sort of way, and certainly a great deal better than its butchered US edit, Battle Beyond the Stars.
The Brood, David Cronenberg (1979, Canada). I’m not sure why I stuck this on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Cronenberg’s work, although I’ve liked many of his films. But he does horror, mostly, and I don’t like horror films. I’m okay with older ones, before CGI, when the special effects are obviously special effects. As is the case with The Brood. The story in this film, on the other hand, is completely bonkers, and despite a good cast – Ollie Reed! – never really rises above the completely silly. Reed plays a psychiatrist whose treatment causes patients to physically manifest their mental pathologies. Yes, actually physically manifest them. Meanwhile, a husband suspects his ex-wife, who is a patient, of abusing their young daughter and he’s trying to win custody as a result. At which point, a weird child in a snowsuit appears and starts beating people to death with hammers. When the husband stumbles across the weird child hiding in his mother’s house and it attacks him, he kills it in self-defence. At the autopsy, the police discover the child has no belly button, no genitals, no teeth, and is not entirely human. It turns out there are lots of these weird children – a group of them later appear and beat a teacher to death with hammers in front of her class of young kids (yes, seriously – how on earth was Cronenberg allowed to film that?) – and they are all parthogenically generated by the ex-wife in response to her anger, and they go out and attack the objects of her anger. It doesn’t… really work. It’s all played with a straight face, and is pretty convincing in parts, but as it progesses the dafter it gets… until the whole edifice is moments way from collapsing into a heap… Which it doesn’t quite managed to do. Not a good film, but a better one than its plot suggests.
Petition: The Court of Complainants, Zhao Liang (2009, China). In China, those who feel they have been abused by local government and the local justice system can petition the government in Beijing. But it’s a long drawn-out process and riddled with corruption. The petitioners live in a shanty town outside the city, and can spend years, even decades, there. Starting in 1996, Zhao filmed some of these petitioners as they tried to get justice from a government that plainly didn’t care about them. Some of the stories, you wonder why the government has not stepped in – a tax collector who demands more grain from some farmers, and less from others. One petitioner is killed by a train after running from “retrievers”, goons hired to force the petitioners to return home, and the camera shows the bits of her body strewn along the track. In the end, everything is razed – “Petition City” is completely demolished, as is the local train station, in order to make room for facilities for the 2008 Olympics. I’ll admit to being surprised Zhao has been able to make his films – although by all accounts it was far from easy – and if they’re not overtly critical of the current Chinese regime, they certainly are by implication. It is horrifying what the people in the film have had to put up with in order to redress injustices, and even scarier that by the time the Olympics opened – and there is a deeply corrupt institution, if ever there was one – any trace of Petition City and the people who lived there had vanished. Zhao’s Crime and Punishment is set in a provincial town and the authorities it depicts seem more incompetent than anything else – or, at least, corrupt in small and human ways. But Petition is set in Beijing, the seat of government, and the people interviewed by Zhao in the film are all from the provinces, showing just how little the government cares about its people. This is, of course, not unique to China. Every capital gets the lion’s share of finance and resources. And as wealth gravitates to the capital to take advantage of that fact, so the equity gap widens and those in the provinces find them increasingly poorer and increasingly powerless… Until they end up in a similar situation to those depicted in this film. There is apparently a five-hour director’s cut of Petition: The Court of Complainants, but I’m not sure I could have sat through it. The box set I bought includes the 120 minute cut. If I’ve not said it before, Zhao Liang is definitely a name to add to your list of directors to watch – Behemoth first, then this one.
Ek Din Achanak, Mrinal Sen (1989, India). Three names usually crop up in articles on Bengali cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I’ve seen a number of films by the first and plan to watch more, I’m already a fan of the second, but I’ve never seen anything by the third. Until now. And Sen’s movies are even harder to find than Ghatak’s. In fact, Ek Din Achanak is the only one available from a large online retailer of books and films and other stuff. There’s another one, Antareen, I’ve managed to track down… Both were released by NFDC Cinemas of India, who have also released two 20-DVD box sets of restored films from various parts of India. WANT WANT WANT. They’re bloody expensive, though, and I’ve yet to find a UK-based seller. Anyway, Ek Din Achanak was a well-played drama about a family whose father, a university professor, disappears one day. They try to carry on without him, and eventually become so accepting of their situation that they blame their present troubles of their own making on him. Despite the plot, and the focus on the family, Ek Din Achanak doesn’t feel as theatrical as Ray’s films. It feels like a movie. Which does sort of feed into my glib description of Ray as India’s “Ingmar Bergman”, although I haven’t quite figured who that makes Mrinal Sen… as if I could do that anyway after watching a single Sen film… But in Ek Din Achanak I found a well-played drama about a situation that felt real, but also unreal enough to be the sort of story you would expect in a literary-style drama. I’d like to see more by Mrinal Sen; I suspect I might have trouble finding more to do so.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850
A wider spread of films this week – in terms of years (five decades) and countries of origin (five nations). Only one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however. And another film that is really bad and I’ve no idea why I bothered buying it or watching it. Eh.
Deadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do, Ralph Thomas (1967/1969, UK). There must have been something in the water back in the 1960s, with all the debonair spy movies that appeared – not just the early 007s, but Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Maroc 7, Our Man in Marrakesh and… these two starring Bulldog Drummond. Who, er, isn’t strictly speaking a spy. And he originally appeared in the 1930s. He’s some sort of man-about-town who acts as a troubleshooter for an uncle in insurance. Or something. But he does do battle with a megalomaniac. And there are plenty of daft gadgets and nubile women in bikinis. Deadlier Than The Male opens with Elke Sommer poisoning an oil baron aboard his private jet, and then parachuting to safety as the plane explodes behind her. It transpires she was paid to do this by a UK oil company, but the oil company decides not to pay her fee – at least not until one of the directors is killed. But now there’s another person standing in the way of the oil company’s expansion, this time the ruler of a small Arab sheikhdom, who Drummond just happened to go to school with. So Drummond heads off to visit his chum on the Italian Riviera, partly to protect the sheikh and partly to discover who is Sommer’s boss. The film ends with a shoot-out on a giant mechanical cheesboard. Bonkers. Some Girls Do is more of the same. This time it’s a UK project to build the world’s first supersonic airliner (hey, we did that for real!), but the project is being sabotaged. It turns out the saboteurs are nubile young women with “robot brains”. Or something. The science is complete nonsense. The villain, for example, uses a subsonic ray to take control of the supersonic airliner. Good luck with that. “Supersonic” means “faster than sound”. Your ray will never catch up with the plane. Even for its subgenre, this is pretty brainless entertainment, without either the silly humour of Matt Helm and Derek Flint, the po-facedness of Bond, or the colourful locations of Maroc 7 and Our Man in Marrakesh.
Starship Apocalypse, Neil Johnson (2014, USA). This is the sequel to Starship Rising, a film that was so bad I, er, bought the sequel. Johnson specialises in low-budget genre films, which I guess sort of makes him the self-published Kindle genre writer of the movie world. The set dressing in the two films by him I’ve now watched is cheap and nasty, the acting is poor, the dialogue terrible, and the stories derivative. This one has a disfigured, allegedly immortal emperor, and a small group – the entire cast of the film probably numbers less than a dozen – of rebels, who have this fantastic starship, or something. The only way to watch this film is pissed, which does sort of make figuring out what’s going on a bit difficult. I’ll probably have to watch both films again, but I’m not sure I want to…
American Dreams (lost and found), James Benning (1984, USA). It probably comes as no surprise that Benning has become one of my favourite directors. He hasn’t knocked Sokurov off the top spot – their oeuvres are almost impossible to compare, but Sokurov has at least made several narrative films (or rather, not documentaries) – but I’d definitely put Benning in the top five. And it’s because of films like American Dreams (lost and found). I can see why Benning’s Deseret made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as it’s probably the most accessible of his films (that I’ve seen to date) – and even then it comprises static shots of scenery in Utah, countryside and towns, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1851 to 1995. American Dreams (lost and found) uses a much more interesting technique to tell its story. In fact, it uses three techniques. The images are of baseball cards and ephemera about Hank Aaron (apparently a great baseball star, although his fame is lost on me as I’ve never followed the sport). The soundtrack consists of a variety of spoken word excerpts, such Martin Luther King’s famous speech, or the first words spoken on the Moon, all iconographic moments in US recent history, alternating with popular music from the 1950s through to the very early 1970s. As well as both of these, a line of handwritten text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. This last is from the diary of a man who plans to murder Richard Nixon, and it reads exactly like the sort of thing written by someone who would plan such a thing – weird spelling mistakes, completely deluded, an oddly prurient but obscene fascination with women… As the film progresses, the story told by the diary deepens, until it is eventually revealed as the real diary of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to kill US presidental candidate George Wallace in 1972. Fascinating stuff.
Close-Up*, Abbas Kiarostami (1990, Iran). I believe this is the film which brought Kiarostami to western critics’ notice, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a documentary in which the people involved re-enact the events of the film’s topic, intercut with footage of the actual court case which results. A man meets a woman in a bus and tells her he is the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The man visits the woman and her family several times, and tries to raise cash from them for his next film. A journalist meets the imposter, realises he is not Makhmalbaf, and the police are called in to arrest him. Kiarostami interviews the journalist, the imposter and the family, and also films them re-enacting the events which led to the arrest. After the court case, the real Makhmalbaf turns up and gives the imposter a lift on his motorbike to the family’s home so he can apologise for trying to con money out of them. It all adds up to a very clever film, which feels partly like a documentary and partly like fiction, and which plays games with the viewer compact, to the extent it’s not clear where the lines blur. Kiarostami is one of the most important directors currently making films, and this film gives ample reason why.
The Niklashausen Journey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). I have a soft spot for films which are little more than actors declaiming political arguments instead of dialogue in a story, such as Miklós Jancsó’s The Confrontation… And now this one. The story is based on a true story from the fifteenth century, about a shepherd who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a vision and promptly tried to start an uprising against the church and landowners. It didn’t succeed. Fassbinder uses a mix of contemporary and historical costumes, and has his actors discuss revolutions and historical forces while notionally acting out the life of the shepherd. It works surprisingly well. Most of the scenes are static, with the cast either standing or sitting still while they speak. And yes, I ended up buying the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection 69-72, Volume 1, so now I have both sets – and they’re worth it even if not every film in them is entirely successful.
Rabid, David Cronenberg (1977, Canada). A charity shop find. Sadly, it was the only early Croneneberg they had. It is, unsurprisingly, distinctively one of his. A young couple are involved in a motorbike accident. She is badly burned, but fortunately the accident took place near a famous plastic surgery clinic. The head of the clinic employs an experimental method to graft skin over the burned area, and as a result the young woman, er, grows an orifice in her armpit, yes really, which has a stinger inside, yes really. She uses this to feed. Her victims cannot remember afterwards what happened, and then some time later they turn into zombies. Whoever the zombies bite, also becomes a zombie. It turns into an epidemic, its cause completely flummoxing the Canadian authorities. It’s a bit too daft a premise to shock as horror, although it works quite well as a completely bonkers thriller. Porn actress Marilyn Chambers plays the young woman, in her first straight acting role. Not a bad film, although it’s clear not much money was thrown at it.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 650
And it’s back to movies, with the usual somewhat eclectic collection of viewing. As usual, films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are asteriskificated.
Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg (2014, Canada). Ah, movies about people who make movies, people who make millions for very little work, who live lives of wealth and privilege and think people actually give a shit about them. And that’s pretty much Maps to the Stars, which focuses on a Hollywood family – there’s a famous TV shrink, the son is the child star of a very profitable franchise, the mother manages the son, and the daughter… Well, the story is really about the daughter, who was institutionalised elsewhere after a past arson attempt… but now she’s back in town. And being drove around by Robert Pattinson. There’s also a fading actress, who’s trying to land the lead role in a remake of her mother’s most famous film, and is having a somewhat unemotional affair with the TV shrink. Oh, and the son is trying hang onto his role after a stint in rehab and a co-star who gets all the best lines. I like metafiction because it’s about the mechanics of fiction, but films about film-making mostly seem to focus on the frankly unlikable personalities who profit from the successes of the movie industry. It’s a bit like the US equivalent of Downton Abbey. Admittedly, this is Cronenberg – and you expect something more from him than just another inward-looking Hollywood-movie-about-Hollywood, populated with a cast where it’s impossible to tell who is the more self-involved – the characters or the actors playing them. And true, Cronenberg throws in some minor weirdness to leaven the unremitting rich-people-problems, but it’s not really enough. Even claims that the film recapitulates in allegorical form the decline of Western civilisation seems like one of those feeble excuses five-year-olds are prone to come out with when found in the presence of an expensive broken vase.
Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA/France). Top of the list of films that were never made is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It only survives in numerous pieces of concept art – although given the artists, Moebius, Chris Foss, Giger, it’s no wonder it survives – and six “bibles” produced by the French production company in order to sell the project to Hollywood studios while drumming up finance. Jodorowsky still has a copy, but it’s not known what happened to the others. Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of the film, which reached a much further point in preproduction than I’d thought, and was only scuppered because Hollywood was unwilling to entrust it to Jodorowsky. But I’ve always believed it would have been a magnificent piece of cinema, and this documentary only reinforces that belief. Perhpas the most fascinating part of the film – and it’s a close call as the damn thing is fascinating throughout – is where it shows the impact Jodorowsky’s project had on subsequent science fiction films. It’s not just that his “team” – O’Bannon, Foss, Giger, Moebius, etc – went on to work on other films, but also that elements of his storyboard ended up in completely unrelated sf movies. Sadly, Jodorowsky’s Dune is only available as Region A Blu-ray, but it does include a Region 1 DVD – so you might as well get it anyway. Because it’s totally worth it.
Ossessione*, Luchino Visconti (1943, Italy). An early piece of Italian neorealist cinema, if not the first film labelled as such. I am not a huge fan of Italian neorealist films, although I love a number of Italian movies (especially those by Antonioni); nor is Visconti among my front rank of directors. I suspect Ossessione is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because of its position as the first Italian neorealist film, because in most other respects it’s relatively ordinary. A tramp finds work at a provincial restaurant, has an affair with the owner’s wife, and the two of them plot to kill her husband. But he dies accidentally… but the boyfriend still ends up going down for it. It’s apparently based on Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Which I know I’ve not read, but I might have seen one of the film adaptations…
Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier (2013, USA/France). The charity shop were doing a buy-one-get-one-free offer, so I went for this one although I really don’t like glossy Hollywood thrillers at all. Admittedly, the elevator pitch did sound intriguing: a group of illusionists pull off a series of bank robberies. Having now seen Now You See Me, I dislike glossy Hollywood thrillers even more. Jesse Eisenberg proves once again he has as much onscreen charisma as a dead badger, not to mention a talent for playing characters you’d swerve to run over if you saw them crossing the street. The remainder of the cast are pretty much standard for the type of film, the elevator pitch – illusionists! making the crimes! – is spoiled by the illusions clearly being the result of CGI trickery (except, of course, for those that are “explained”), and it’s all as slick and unmemorable as a cheap supermarket kagool. Avoid.
The Keeper Of Lost Causes, Mikkel Nørgaard (2013, Denmark). My mother is a fan of Alder-Olsen’s novels, and when I spotted this film adaptation of his debut in a charity shop, I decided to give it a go. It’s a Nordic crime thriller, which pretty much hits all the clichés, opening with a police raid that goes badly wrong and in which only our brooding Nordic detective escapes uninjured. But not unscathed. After a medical leave of absence, he’s given a makework job, closing cold cases in Department Q. But not apparently closing cases – he’s not supposed to solve them, just mark them as unsolved and archive them. Or something. But the first one he picks, he decides to solve. A woman disappeared on a ferry, and the death was marked down as suicide, even though the woman had shown no suicidal tendencies. Nordic detective, however, with the help of faithful sidekick of Arab extraction, is made of sufficiently stern stuff to ignore any complaints or threats from his boss, and proves the woman is still alive! In a saturation system! Built in a barn by a nutter! Apparently, checking off every Nordic crime trope wasn’t enough, the makers of this film also had to get the hyperbaric element completely wrong. I can’t speak for the books, but this film adaptation is distinctly unimpressive.
Fireworks Wednesday, Asghar Farhadi (2006, Iran). Some of the best films I’ve seen over the past few years have been from Iran, and Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly is one of the best of those. So I made an effort to seek out some of his earlier films. The title of this one refers to New Year’s Day, when fireworks are let off as part of the celebrations; but it could also be seen as a reference to the internal dynamics of the family at the centre of the story. A young woman about to be wed gets a temporary job cleaning the flat of a family who had have just had it repainted but are now apparently off to Dubai for a short holiday. Except relations between husband and wife are not at their best… because she suspects him of having an affair with a divorcee who runs a beauty salon in their block of apartments. Both husband and wife enlist the young woman in their attempts to prove their suspicions – but that’s all beside the point as Fireworks Wednesday is more of a character protrait of the wife than anything else, and it’s superbly done. Farhadi may be a less formally experimental director than Kiarostami, but he is nonetheless a world-class talent. Seek out all his films and watch them.
Oriental Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1996, Russia/Japan). Unfortunately, I have yet to source a copy of this DVD (which actually comprises three films), but I did find a copy of ‘Oriental Elegy’ on Youtube with subtitles. So I downloaded it to a USB drive and watched it on my telly. The quality was… not the best. Although given that this is one of Sokurov’s “elegies”, and his propensity for post-production visual effects, that’s perhaps not so much of an issue. I would seriously like to see – and own – a decent copy of this. It’s fairly typical for Sokurov, a meditation on life and death prompted by a traveller’s visit to a strange Japanese town, where he listens to the testimonies of various people, amd where distorted cinematography helps illustrate the words spoken by the traveller in voice over. Like most Sokurov films, I’m going to have to watch this a number of times to figure it out. Now that’s value for money…
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 595
A bit of an epic post this, partly because in my last readings & watchings I only gave the books I’d read and not the films I’ve watched. But how can more be bad, eh?
Books Troika, Alastair Reynolds (2010), is the first piece of fiction Reynolds has had shortlisted for a Hugo. It lost out on best novella to Ted Chiang, which is unfortunate. With Chiang on the shortlist, everyone else stands little or no chance of taking the award. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Chiang’s award-winning The Lifecycle of Software Objects, though I have the Subterranean Press edition on my book-shelves. And the copy of Troika I read was also the Subterranean Press edition, although the novella originally appeared in Godlike Machines, a SFBC-only anthology. Clearly the US Science Fiction Book Club is quite influential in Hugo nominations. Troika is BDO sf meets alternate Soviet space history, but is not, I think, Reynolds’ best work to date, despite being short-listed. The BDO itself feels too enigmatic, and the final twist on the “present day” sections doesn’t quite make sense of the whole thing. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t have nominated (had I chosen to pay for the privilege of doing so).
SVK, Warren Ellis and d’Israeli (2011), was sold on a gimmick: it requires a black light torch (packaged with the comic) to read some of the speech balloons. It is otherwise a fairly typical Ellis sf piece, with a nice twist in the end. A freelance fixer is called in by a government department to recover a piece of technology, which, it transpires, allows a person to read the thoughts of other people (and it’s those which are printed in invisible ink). D’Israeli’s art is good, Ellis’ dialogue is also good, but it all feels a little thin and a bit overwhelmed by the invisible ink gimmick.
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen (2006), I picked up in a local charity shop because I remembered enjoying her The Rapture (2009) (see here). That later novel had been marketed as literary fiction – Jensen herself is marketed as a literary fiction writer – but was plainly sf. And so the title of My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time suggested the same also held true for it. And so it does. A prostitute in late 19th century Copenhagen goes to work as a cleaner for the widow of an inventor who vanished several years before. In the basement of the widow’s house, the prostitute finds a strange device… and is inadvertently catapulted to modern-day London. There she discovers the inventor and a colony of time-displaced Danes, all of whom have chosen to build new lives in twenty-first century Britain. All have been warned, however, to keep their contact with the locals to a minimum. But then the prostitute falls in love with a London man… The story is told entirely in the prostitute’s voice, which gets a little wearying after a while, but it’s well-handled. I think I’ll seek out some more of Jensen’s books.
Silversands, Gareth L Powell (2010), is Powell’s first published novel. It was published by Pendragon Press – and Powell’s first novel by a major publisher, The Recollection, has just come out from Solaris. Something similar happened to Mark Charan Newton. Perhaps it’s a pattern. Silversands is a solid sf mystery set on a a colony world. When a ship from Earth arrives – it’s important to the plot that the wormholes which connect the colonies can’t be navigated – it triggers a series of events which threaten to bring down the colony’s government. Though only short, the novel is well-paced, the characters rounded, and the setting sketched in with skill. Despite all this, it’s not especially memorable, perhaps because its one big idea is peripheral to the plot and only impacts at the end.
Adventures in Capitalism, Toby Litt (1996). To be honest, the most interesting thing about Litt’s career so far has been his intention that each of his book be alphabetically titled. Which is not say that those of his books I’ve read so far have been bad. I quite enjoyed Corpsing (2000), and while Journey into Space (2009) was a little old-fashioned I did think it nicely-written. But the stories in this collection, Adventures in Capitalism, are somewhat variable, and several of them are, well, a bit dull.
Spin State, Chris Moriarty (2003), was August’s book for the reading challenge, and I wrote about here.
The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis (1955), is the seventh Narnia book by year of publication, but the first according to internal chronology. In fact, it’s a prequel and explains the origin of Narnia. Which is that, well, Aslan made it. Just like that. But in a lot less time than six days. Neighbours Digory and Polly use one of Digory’s uncle’s magic rings and find themselves in a strange wood. In the wood are pools of water, and each pool leads to a different world. Unfortunately, the first world they visit is in some sort of magical stasis, after evil witch Jadis spoke the Deplorable Word in order to defeat her ruling sister (I can think of many deplorable words, so I’ve no idea which particular one Jadis actually used). Digory foolishly wakes Jadis, who follows them back to Victorian London, and promptly wreaks havoc as she tries to conquer it – despite her magic powers not working. In desperation, Digory and Polly use the rings… and send themselves, Jadis, a cabbie, his horse, and their uncle to a land of nothingness. Then they hear singing, light appears, and so too does Aslan, and Narnia is created. There are some nice touches: a piece of a street lamp used by Jadis as a weapon in London is dropped by her, and becomes the street lamp in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Jadis becomes the White Witch; and the cabbie and his wife become the first kind and queen of Narnia, despite being working class.The dialogue throughout is quite fun, although, the Garden of Eden rip-off was blatant and the general tone of the book is very preachy. Definitely one of the better books of the series, though I still wouldn’t recommend them to a kid.
From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming (1957), is the fifth 007 book, but was the second film to be made. It was also a far more successful film than its predecessor Dr No, and so probably responsible for the existence of the franchise. Given that I’d previously read four Bond novels, you’d think I’d know what to expect from the fifth one. Admittedly, my memory’s vague on the plot of the film – I remember only the periscope, the attack in the gypsy camp, and the iconic punt through the Basilica Cistern. The first two certainly make an appearance in the book, but not the third. And if I’d thought the other Bond books contained an uncomfortable strand of misogyny, in From Russia with Love it’s downright offensive. Not only does Istanbul station chief Karim Bey insist that all women want to be raped, but the scene at the gypsy camp sees the women present treated as nothing more than amusement for the men. Then there’s the racial stereotyping and racism… Bond was better when he stayed in the UK. I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone, and the more of them I read the more I’m convinced they only remain in print because of the film franchise.
Orbital Vol 4: Ravages, Sylvain Runerg & Serge Pellé (2010) is, I think the last of this series – at least the ending suggests as much. Though it’s been sold as the fourth book of a series, it’s actually the second in a two-part story – with Volume 3 Nomads – as the story continues on directly from that earlier volume. Something alien and mysterious has been killing fish – and now people – in the mangrove swamps near Kuala Lumpur, just as the preparations for a celebration of the Human-Sanjarr alliance (they fought a war not so long ago) are in full swing. The locals are revolting and convinced some alien nomads who have settled in the swamp are responsible. They’re not, of course. At least, not directly. I’ve enjoyed this series – it’s good solid sf, nicely drawn and well thought-out. If it seems a bit abrupt in places, or choppy in others, I suspect that’s more the style of bandes desinée than it is the fault of the writer.
Films What A Way To Go, dir. J Lee Thompson (1964). Every now and again I like to watch a bit of fluff. Once, my preferred choice had been crap science fiction films – of which there are very, very many – but watching them is actually hard work. Now, I’d much sooner watch something from the 1950s or early 1960s – they’re far more entertaining, there are no bad special effects to burn out your eyes, the acting is of a much higher calibre, and the scripts actually display some wit. Having said all that, What A Way To Go is a bit of an odd beast. Shirley MacLaine plays a young woman who inadvertently inspires each man she marries to become successful and rich. So much so, in fact, that on her last husband’s death, she is determined to give away the vast fortune she has amassed. But the government won’t accept it. (Things were clearly very different in those days.) Her husbands are played by Dick van Dyke, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, and Robert Mitchum – so this is a star-studded comedy. There’s even an extended dance number – with MacLaine and Kelly, of course – in the middle. It’s quite a strange film. I enjoyed it, though.
…All the Marbles, dir. Robert Aldrich (1981), was Aldrich’s last film, and while it has its moments, it’s not especially memorable. Peter Falk plays the manager of a female tag-team wrestling duo. Most of the matches are fixed, but the two wrestlers are determined to make it to the final in Las Vegas. And so they do – though not without Falk making some enemies along the way. This is a pretty grim film. The characters are just about hanging on, and the story takes them through some of the grimmer parts of the United States. I think it’s supposed to be a comedy, though there aren’t many laughs. At least, some of the characters are so broadly-drawn, they belong in a comedy. The wrestling itself reminds me wrestling on British telly back in the early 1980s, during the heyday of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and the like. Although, of course, they weren’t women.
Where The Sidewalk Ends, dir. Otto Preminger (1950). I do like Preminger’s movies. I’m not so keen on Dana Andrews as a leading man, however. He always strikes me as a bit too louche and expressionless for the roles he plays. In this film – consider a classic noir – Andrews is a police detective who accidentally kills a suspect. He tries to cover up the death by accusing a cabbie who called on the victim. Except the cabbie is actually the victim’s father-in-law, and Andrews’ detective falls in love with the estranged wife (played by Gene Tierney). This is classic twisty-turny stuff, all baggy suits and trilbies and mean streets. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Skyline, dir. the Strause Brothers (2010), is, as far as I understand, a rip-off of Battle: Los Angeles, for which the Strause brothers provided special effects. For whatever reason, they decided they could do a better job themselves, and made their own film. Perhaps they should have stuck to special effects. There are some mysterious aliens. And they have attacked Los Angeles. And there is a bunch of bad actors stuck in a penthouse apartment, who try to escape. Er, that’s about it. Avoid.
Shirin, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2008). I’ve now seen three films by Kiarostami – and several more by other Iranian directors – and I’m still not quite what to make of him. Certified Copy (2010) was a clever and accomplished drama (see my VideoVista review here); Taste of Cherry (1997) was odd but entertaining, though the ending was near-genius; but Shirin… The film takes place in a cinema with an entirely female audience. The camera moves from face to face, while the dialogue from the movie being shown is heard (it’s the story of Khosrow and Shirin, a 800-year old Persian tale). That’s it. A series of close-ups of faces, many in hijab. For 92 minutes. I don’t think it works as a concept.
Brief Encounter, dir. David Lean (1945). I’d never seen this before. I know, unbelievable. But there you go. And now that I have seen it… I was disappointed. Perhaps because it does exactly what it says on the tin. Celia Johnson travels regularly into town on the train. One day, she meets Leslie Howard. They enjoy each other’s company, so they meet whenever they’re in town. It goes further. Meanwhile, both have families at home. I actually felt sorry for Johnson’s husband – he seemed like a decent sort. And she was so drippy, the whole affair felt about as __
Videodrome, dir. David Cronenberg (1983), is another film I’ve somehow not seen in the twenty-seven years since it was released, though I have seen many of Cronenberg’s other films. It is… odd, though it hasn’t aged well. All that snuff television, screwing with your minds stuff is a little old. I suspect some of it was back in 1983. The weird organic gun was peculiar, as was the body-horror bits. Sometimes they felt like they belonged in a different film. And there was a surprising cheapness to the production, which I hadn’t expected – perhaps because Cronenberg’s later films have better production values. Oh well, I’ve seen it now.
Moolaadé, dir. Ousmane Sembène (2004). I’ve found myself watching a lot of African cinema in recent years, particularly North African. So when Lovefilm threw up Moolaadé – set in West Africa – I wasn’t especially interested in seeing it. But I stuck it on my “world cinema” list, and several weeks later it was sent to me. And i thought it excellent. It’s set in a small rural village in Burkina Faso. Three girls have run away from the traditional female circumcision ceremony and seek protection from Collé, who had refused to have her daughter’s genitals mutilated a few years before. Collé use moolaadé, magical protection, to ensure the girls are kept safe within her house – or rather, the house of her husband, which she shares with his other two wives. The men of the village are not amused, as they consider female circumcision necessary for marriage, as well as required by Islam (neither, of course, is true). In an effort to control the women of the village, the men gather up all their radios and destroy them. A visiting trader – a veteran of the local civil war – takes the side of the women, as does the headman’s son, who has recently returned from working in France. But the women are not empowered, and it does not go well. This is an excellent film, a definite contender for my best of the year. I’d like to see more by Sembène but, unfortunately, Moolaadé is the only film of his available on DVD in the UK. Make more available, please.
Star Trek: The Next Generation season 4 (1990), in which the Enterprise-D boldly goes on and on and on, in its continuing mission to provide bland science fiction television entertainment with the occasional episode which makes you sit up and take notice. Not to mention the several episodes which are downright embarrassing – like ‘Brothers’, in which Picard returns home to France and argues with his brother. Or ‘Data’s Day’ – but then, I never liked the character of Data. Or the one with Lwaxana Troi in it, another character I dislike. On the other hand, Legacy’, in which Tasha Yar’s sister plays one faction against the other against the Enterprise isn’t bad. And ‘The Drumhead’ manages a consistent feeling of paranoia throughout. But the overwhelming sense seems to be of blandness – bland uniforms, bland characters, bland stories. Four seasons in it and it feels like the programme is already well settled into a rut. It needs jollying out of it. Perhaps that happens in season 5. I can but hope.
Kiss Them for Me, dir. Stanley Donen (1957), I watched most of on Film4, but then ended up buying the DVD for a couple of quid. What an odd film. It’s ostensibly a screwball comedy, set during World War II, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Cary Grant plays a war hero Navy pilot who’s had enough, and wangles a week’s furlough in San Francisco with two buddies. The trio plan to get drunk and party the entire time. And so they mostly do. Jayne Mansfield plays a dumb blonde, with a voice like fingernails on a blackboard, as comic relief, but Grant has his eye set on Suzy Parker (who, for some bizarre reason, had her voice dubbed over by Deborah Kerr), the fiancée of an industrialist who could arrange for Grant and his buddies to sit out the rest of the war. Grant leers a lot, there are some strange comic turns, and the natives of San Francisco don’t exactly seem brimming over with patriotism.
Next, dir. Lee Tamahori (2007), stars Nicolas Cage, who perhaps in some alternate world hasn’t turned into a parody of himself. Perhaps in that same alternate world, Philip K Dick’s stories won’t have been bent and twisted in the service of Hollywood, and he’s mostly remembered as a sf author and not a provider of glossy middle-brow concept movies. In Next, Cage can see two minutes into the future, and the FBI are after him because they’ve figured this out and are convinced his talent can help them find the nuclear bomb terrorists have hidden somewhere in the US. It’s all very silly, Cage plays his part with a sort of wooden-faced intensity, and Tamahori manages some good action set-pieces. Dick’s stories demand you think about them; the films they’ve made of his stories demand you don’t.
Caramel, dir. Nadine Labaki (2007), was a surprise. It’s about three women who work in a beauty salon in Beirut. One is in an affair with a married man, and hasn’t noticed that the local policeman is in love with her. Another is a lesbian, and fancies one of the salon’s customers. And the third is engaged but has not told her husband she is not a virgin and is afraid of the consequences should he learn so. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The cast play their parts well, and there’s much about the story that is very Lebanese. While Caramel may be a feel-good movie, it’s not insultingly so.
The Stoning of Soraya M, dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh (2008), I had mixed feelings about. Like the female circumcision in Moolaadé, stoning is barbaric and unjustifiable. The Stoning of Soraya M is apparently based on a true story. It’s set in a village in Iran, where a man falsely accuses his wife of adultery because she won’t divorce him and allow him to marry a younger woman. Stoning is barbaric. Any justice system in which women are judged more harshly than men is barbaric. any justice system which sentences people to death is barbaric. It doesn’t need for Soraya M to be innocent and virtuous. So what if she had committed adultery? The fact she was stone is condemnation enough of the village and its justice. Making the husband out to be a manipulative moustache-twirling villain is entirely unnecessary and feels like the story is pandering to people who might consider adultery crime enough – for a woman only, of course – to require severe punishment. The Stoning of Soraya M is a film worth seeing but, sadly, it undermines its own argument.
Twelfth Night, dir. John Gorrie (1980), I’m fairly sure I saw when I was at school, though the Shakespeare play I studied for English O Level was Henry IV, Part 1. It’s another typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities and cross-dressing. Felicity Kendall plays Viola/Cesario, Robert Hardy is Sir Toby Belch, Clive Arrindell is Orsino, and Sinéad Cusack is Olivia. Alec McCowen plays a good Malvolio, both unctuous and creepy. I was, incidentally, surprised to discover that the line “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” is from this play – specifically from a love letter written by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste the jester, but purpotedly from his mistress, Olivia, as revenge on Malvolio. In context, it seems an ironic choice of phrase for people who use it to justify their own over-inflated sense of worth. Much Ado About Nothing remains the best of the comedies I’ve seen so far, though this one comes a close second.
Blake’s Seven series 4 (1981) feels like an unwanted coda to the first three series. And so it was. The makers had not expected to be renewed after series three, and so had to quickly cobble together something for an additional thirteen episodes. Including a new spaceship, since they had blown up Liberator. Plus a new base. And several new additions to the “Seven”. The base is underground and belongs to a salvage-man of dubious legality who Avon’s gang defeat and kill in a story entirely ripped off from The Picture of Dorian Gray. His lover and partner, Soolin, joins Avon, and the obsequious computer of his ship, Scorpio, makes up the seven. The Federation/empire ruled by Servalan which Blake and co had destroyed is now busy recreating itself, but Servalan – believed dead – is reviled. So she has re-invented herself as Sleer, a police commissioner, and is busy planning a return to power. It’s as well Blake’s Seven finished after this season. The special effects are embarrassingly cheap, the sets more so, the stories don’t make much sense, and the story-arc seems to lurch about without coming close to any sort of end. So they killed everyone off. They should have kept it to three series.
Chronicles of Narnia 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, dir. Michael Apted (2010), led to a small discussion on Twitter. I maintain the films are better than the books – I find the books deeply patronising, and their old-fashioned sensibilities often offensive. The films at least have modernised the books’ attitudes. However, as was pointed out to me, this has not always been done for the better. When on the island of the invisible Dufflepuds, in the book a magic tome allows Lucyto hear what everyone else thinks for her, whereas in the film she imagines what her life might be like were she as beautiful as her sister, Susan. It’s a step backwards as Lewis was mostly evenhanded in his treatment of gender, with the girls as noble and heroic as the boys. But then, the best bit of the Narnia books is that the Pevensie children remained in Narnia as kings and queens, grew up and ruled wisely… and then returned to their real lives as children, no more than minutes older than when they had left. Lewis throws all that away in a single line. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a string of minor adventures, in which Prince Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and cousin Useless Eustace try to discover the fates of the seven lost Lords of Narnia. Which they do.
Only Angels Have Wings, dir. Howard Hawks (1939), is the sort of Hemingway-esque movie they don’t make any more. And with good reason: it’s mostly nonsense. Cary Grant plays the manager of a small fleet of aeroplanes which carry mail over the Andes. It’s a dangerous job because they don’t have radar, or even planes powerful enough to fly over the tops of the mountains. So they have a tendency to crash in the passes when the weather is bad. And it’s often bad. There’s lots of macho posturing, the dialogue is snappy, Cary Grant makes good fist of his role despite the part not requiring debonair charm, Rita Hayworth smoulders, and the model-work for the aeroplanes almost convinces. I do like the Silver Fox’s movies, and many of them are classics, but I’m finding that the ones I like are not always the ones everyone else likes…
30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, dir. Gabriel Bologna (2007), was produced by The Global Asylum. So when I sat down to watch it I knew I was going to get a shit film. I was not disappointed. It’s allegedly an update of Verne’s classic, though how increasing the number of leagues signals that fact is a mystery. A US ballistic missile sub has sunk in a deep marine trench, and so the Navy calls in Lieutenant Arronax and his deep sea submersible. To make matters more interesting, they put the submersible under the command of Arronax’s ex-wife, Lieutenant Commander Conciel. The submersible descends from the USS Abraham Lincoln (an Iowa-class battleship that can somehow manage 75 knots) to 20,000 feet, where the missile sub lies. Bizarrely, there is a bubble of reduced pressure there, which allows the crew of the submersible to use ordinary scuba gear. It doesn’t explain how the missile sub didn’t implode on its way down, however. Also down there is a vast submarine, commanded by Captain Nemo, who wants to use the sub’s nuclear missiles to destroy the world above the waves. Arronax must stop him, even though some of his crew have been brainwashed by a device of Nemo’s. This film has no redeeming qualities – the CGI is crap, the acting is worse, the script is dreadful – with exchanges such as “I want it soon.” “How soon?” “Immediately!” – and the story makes no sense. How The Global Asylum remains in business is a mystery.
Mammoth, dir. Lukas Moodysson (2009). I was not very impressed by Moodysson’s Container – although I like his other films, especially Lilya 4-Ever – so was somewhat afraid I’d feel the same about this film. But I actually thought it was superb. A young dotcom millionaire files out to Thailand to sign a deal with some venture capitalists. His wife is a surgeon in the ER at a New York hospital. Their nanny is a Filipina, who has left her two young sons back in the Philippines. But it’s a film mostly about children. In Thailand, the millionaire heads for the beach, bored by the negotiations, and there meets a young prostitute. He pays her to go home, rather than sleep with him. But she returns the following day and offers to be his guide. Meanwhile, the wife objects to the nanny introducing the couple’s young daughter to Filipino culture. While in the Philippines, the older of the two boys tries to make extra money by selling his body. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good as the young millionaire, but the rest of the cast are also very good. An excellent film, and another contender for the best of the year.
Moonwalk One, dir. Theo Kamecke (1970), I will be reviewing at some point on my Space Books blog. It’s a strangely hippie documentary of the Apollo 11 mission, which gives a very real idea of contemporary reactions to it.
Dark Descent, dir. Wilfred Schmidt (2004). When I saw a description of this, I thought it might prove interesting as it’s set in an undersea habitat in the Challenger Deep. What I hadn’t expected it to be is a complete rip-off of Outland (which was itself “inspired” by High Noon). Dean Cain (how the, er, super have fallen) plays the marshal of the aforementioned habitat, which is actually a mining-town. He’s cleaned the place up as it was a hive of scum and villainy – well, drunken violence, the occasional murder, prostitution and vice. Days before he is due to be relieved, he learns that three villains he put away are on their way back to take their revenge. But everyone else in the facility is afraid of them. There is too much in this film which makes no sense. The facility is at the deepest part of the ocean, and the pressure outside is seven tons per square inch. It’s such a dangerous place, in which survival is so totally dependent on machinery, you wouldn’t put there the sort of people who would booze it up, get violent, and behave like criminals. Stupid. The rest of the plot involves some drug which allows humans to take the pressure – water pressure or the stress of the job? Can’t be the water pressure, because no pill is going to make seven tons per square inch survivable. As is later proven when a jet of water at that pressure goes straight through a man. Anyway, the local doctor has been secretly trialling overdoses of the drug, and this has led to a series of suicides. When Cain gets suspicious, the company hires the three villains to sort him out. A film to avoid.
Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego (2011), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.