It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Best of the half– fuck, what a year it’s been so far… year

2020 has certainly been a year for the history books. True, more people died in the early decades of last century, but that did result in actually intelligent people being in charge for a while. But then old habits kicked back in and the British once again mistook privilege for intelligence and the US once again mistook the possession of wealth for intelligence, and so both countries now have the worst and most inept governments in living memory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the pandemic. I’ve spent most of this year so far cooped up indoors. And all my holidays plans – conventions in Stockholm and the Åland Islands – were cancelled; and ones later this year – in Reykjavík and Copenhagen – may also come to naught. You would think that working from home and not socialising would mean I’ve spent the last six months readings tons of books and watching shitloads of films. Sadly, no. Which has made this best of the half year both easier and harder – easier because there’s less to choose from; harder because there were no real stand-outs, just an even split between good and bad. But here goes, anyway…

books
To date, I’ve read 49 books, of which ten were rereads. Female authors accounted for 43%, and male authors for 47%. The remainder were graphic novels and non-fiction. Half were by British authors, a third by US authors, and the rest from Sweden, New Zealand, Israel, France, Belgium and Canada. The oldest book I read was first published in 1923, and the most recent was published this year. The best five books read in 2020 so far are…

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). From a relatively easy to understand premise – a group of “superheroes” taken from late Victorian/early Edwardian fiction – this extended series has turned increasingly metafictional as it has progressed. And every piece of British fiction sooner or later references Shakespeare. And if you’re going to do that, and you’re genre, why not go for the big one, The Tempest? (It’d be King Lear for other genres, I suspect; but A Comedy of Errors for, er, comedy.) This latest installment of The League of Gentleman doesn’t just up the metafictional states, it also functions as a history of UK comics. I can understand the motives behind this – and I’m well aware it’s something Moore has tackled many times in other properties – but certainly the breadth of British comics doesn’t seem so well-known – US comics: superhero comics … UK comics: everything from the Bash Street Kids to Dan Dare to Judge Dredd to Susan of St Bride’s to Lord Peter Flint…

2 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve been a fan of Russ’s fiction for many years, and a fan of Jones’s writing for considerably longer, and in hindsight the two have a great deal in common. The science fiction of both is intensely feminist, although in Russ’s fiction it feels more combative – but claiming that’s a consequence of its time is too easy an answer, because while Russ may have been earlier, the war is far from over, even 65 years after the publication of Russ’s first story in 1955. Jones provides an overview of Russ’s life, and then discusses her fiction, both short and long. This book does what all good books of its type should do: it makes you want to go back and revisit the subject’s works. I finished Joanna Russ wanting to reread Russ’s stories and novels. Job done.

3 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). Tidhar has spent a lot of time exploring alternative Israels and, sadly, history has given him plenty of plausible alternatives to explore. In Unholy Land, the Jews are offered land in Uganda by the British – which really sort of happened – and they accept the offer and call it Palestine. But Tidhar can never tell a straight alternative history, there has to be some sort of spin. In Unholy Land, a science fiction author returns to this Palestine, except he’s not from that reality, and his presence changes things. For all that this is not new territory for Tidhar, it’s good stuff. I’m also pretty sure one of the stories written by the sf author in the novel is the first sf story by Tidhar I ever read.

4 Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). It’s not just sentimentality that earns this novel its spot in this top five  – it’s the last of the Bernie Gunther books, as Kerr died the year before it was published – but as the last book in what has been an excellent series, and one of the better entries in that series, it definitely earns a place. Yes, there is a link with Lang’s film, but it’s pretty tenuous (Gunther is interviewed by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s scriptwriter and wife, and suggests the plot which becomes M). Metropolis covers Gunther’s career in its very early years, specifically an investigation into two serial killers, one who kills prostitutes and one who kills WWI veterans, and it’s excellent stuff. If you’ve not read these books, you really should give them a go.

5 Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). This is previously-mined territory for Charnock as Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as A Calculated Life and The Enclave. In fact, the opening chapters of the novel were previously published as The Enclave. Charnock presents a future UK suffering from both climate change and the migrant crisis, but also a world split into haves and have-nots where the distinguishing item is a brain chip allowing direct access to, well, something probably not unlike the internet – but without the trolls and fake news and shitstorm social media. Bridge 108 is a bit like Law and Order – a format I’ve used myself – as the story is carried forward from one character to the next. Science fiction which interrogates our world is becoming increasingly rare – indeed, science fiction which interrogates its own world seems on the wane – so we should value such novels when they do appear.

Honourable mentions: The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK), a trunk novel rewritten as a sequel to The Green Man’s Heir, and while it’s a bit, er, bitty, it’s a fun read and a good instalment in a series that deserves to continue; The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK), the Hitchcock connection, to be honest, is a bit of a red herring, as is the crime which opens the story, but this is a typically Robertsian exploration of political conflict between two worlds, in this case the real and the virtual, which on reflection seems particularly British; A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA), a short collection of metafictional pieces by an author who probably writes the best prose of any US genre writer currently being published; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), the third and, sadly, final, volume in the adventures of the Athena Club, a female-only group of fictional characters from Victorian literature, and, while it doesn’t celebrate the metafictions it explores, this trilogy is pleasingly metafictional; Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK), Ballard meets Greene in strange adventures in an alien zone in South America, which succeeds because it’s on strong on atmosphere and appropriately vague on rigour; Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK), after rabbits Adams turned to secondary-world fantasy, and managed something that is more literary than is common for the genre, even if it wasn’t published as genre per se, but is just as grim and bleak.

films
I bought a dozen Blu-rays with me when I moved here and I’ve still not watched them all. Admittedly, one is 17.5 hours long, so it may be a while yet before the shrinkwrap comes off that one. I’ve not watched any Swedish TV this year, but then I was never a fan of Midsomer Murders. But I have been binge-watching several sf TV series. After finishing off Stargate SG-1, I moved onto Quantum Leap. And there was a season of Space: 1999 in there somewhere as well- and that definitely didn’t match my fond memories of it. There were also some newer series, such as Watchmen, Avenue 5 and For All Mankind, of assorted quality. And then there were the films…

This year, I’ve seen 198 films, so slightly up on last year. Two-thirds were new to me. A third were from the US, slightly less than a third from the UK, and the rest from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (including the USSR), South Africa, South Korea and Sweden. China, India and Italy were the top three among those – that’s a lot of Jackie Chan and Shaw Bros movies, Bollywood films and gialli. The best films – and one “limited event series” – I watched in 2020 so far are…

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember watching some of this back in the 1990s – I’m pretty sure I did, although I left the UK in March 1994 and it was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 1993, which would have been my only chance to see it… So perhaps I didn’t it. I certainly knew of it. And at that time I likely thought it hugely self-indulgent – 79 minutes of a single shot of International Klein Blue? But I’ve now watched it several times, and I find it an extremely moving film. Plus, I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice for weeks.

2 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). I’m surprised I’d not come across this film sooner. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the name Labaki is not unknown to me. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to find the sort of films I like these days. New releases on streaming services seem to dominate social media, and Amazon’s search engine is notoriously useless. And I no longer subscribe to either LoveFilm (which is defunct anyway) or Cinema Paradiso, which was one way of finding new films that might interest me… Fortunately, I stumbled across Capernaum on Amazon Prime, a film about how the West has comprehensively fucked up the Near East, as told through the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy who stabs a man who buys his eleven-year-old sister as his wife (and she dies in childbirth), and the boy wants to sue his parents for having him. This is harrowing stuff, and a film that should certainly be better known.

3 In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). Skarsgård plays a taciturn Swede living in Norway who has just been made Man of the Year of his small town. Then his son is found dead of an overdose, except Skarsgård is convinced he never touched drugs. (He was actually murdered by a drug dealer.) Skarsgård investigates and works his way up the drug cartel hierarchy, killing off each person he finds, and inadvertently kicking off a gang war between the Norwegian drug dealers and a gang of Serbian drug dealers. This is the blackest of comedies and it’s perfectly pitched. The head of the Norwegian gang, a pony-tailed Vegan, is an excellent comedic character. Bizarrely, some of the characters spoke Swedish, some Danish, and the rest Norwegian. Which resulted in a somewhat weird viewing experience.

4 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks since it was first broadcast on British TV. The one thing I never thought it needed was a third season. And, to be honest, I’ve sort of gone off David Lynch’s movies. So expectations were mixed when I started watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, as it was branded in the UK. And… The second season of Twin Peaks ended in a very strange place, and this third season takes that and runs with it. It’s almost impossible to summarise or make sense of the plot. Most of the original cast return, including several who had retired, but especially notable in this season was the cinematic quality of camerawork. The original two seasons of Twin Peaks were television soap opera, and both looked and felt like a – somewhat bizarre, admittedly – television soap opera. But the third season often looks and feels like a string of arthouse films. There’s that famous theme tune, and lots of familiar faces, but watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series is a bit like watching the entire oeuvre of an alternate world David Lynch.

5 Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A middle-aged divorcee decides she has spent long enough on the shelf, and begins to enjoy a social life. She meets a man of the same age, and they start seeing each other. But he’s still tied to his kids, and he can’t let them go and enjoy their relationship. Middle-aged women are not a common subject of movies – and particularly not, you would have thought, in South America – so such films should be treasured when they do appear. It helps that Gloria is so good. It’s mostly a one-hander, but Paulina García is excellent in the title role (and won a Golden Bear for it). Again, like the other two non-Anglophone movies above, this was a lucky find. I’m glad I found it.

Honourable mentions: Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China), highly entertaining kung fu action/comedy that starts in Hong Kong then moves to Tokyo; Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway), two nobodies who clean up after deaths get more than they bargain for when they discover a hulder, a Scandinavian forest satyr, in a dead man’s bunker; Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco), a movie with an amateur cast of Moroccan kids who decide to give one of their own a fitting funeral after he dies in a senseless gang fight.

albums
No albums, I’m afraid. I’ve spent most of the last six months listening to playlists on Spotify. Some I created myself, some myself and colleagues put together, and others I found on Spotify. If I had the time, I could probably pick five best songs I’ve stumbled across in 2020, but that would be a monumental task and I don’t track the music I listen to like I do the films I watch and the books I read. But perhaps by the end of the year, I may have found some albums new to me in 2020 worthy of a top five.


1 Comment

Movie roundup 2020, #5

I apologise for the increasing length between posts on this blog. I’d hoped moving countries would reinvigorate my writing – not just blog posts and book reviews, but also fiction – but it seems learning your way around a new job, a new country, a new language… And then, the pandemic hit. I shall have to be more disciplined about how I spend my time when I’m not sitting at the dining-table WFH at the dayjob. My reading has certainly picked up – aren’t Kindles convenient? – but my film-watching has slightly decreased… yet I can’t seem to work out why I seem to have less free time…

Anyway, it’s the day before Valborg, which is going to be a strange celebration this year. Normally, the city turns into one giant party, with lots of live concerts, booze and bonfires. I shall probably just watch some movies. Speaking of which, here are some I saw a couple of weeks ago…

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Joachim Rønning (2020, USA). Sleeping Beauty is the best animated film Disney has ever produced, and it’s not a film that ever needed a sequel. But it got one – because no dead horse is not worth a couple more flogs. Except the sequel was live action. Happily, it was removed enough from the original to be an entertaining fantasy in its own right. However, what Sleeping Beauty really did not need was a sequel to the live-action sequel. This is just fucking bobbins. Anyway, after generations of ignoring the Moors (ie, fairies – bad choice of word there, methinks), the humans decide they actually really want their land because otherwise they will all die for reasons, and this is all down to a fake news campaign by the queen. I know it’s a fairy tale and they run on archetypes, but Disney seems to have mistranslated archetype as stereotype, and then they throw in genocide as if it were just another trope. I love Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent wasn’t all that bad, but this film pushes it to its twenty-first century limit, which is basically: let’s kill the foreigners to death. It’s one thing to posit such a story and then show it fail, but it would be more healthy to not posit the story in the first place. Make it literally unthinkable. But it’s not, of course: it’s actually wishful thinking. Racist bastards.

The Mighty Peking Man, Ho Meng-hua (1977, China). From the, er, CGI to the, er, man in a rubber suit. Well, furry suit. The title refers to a giant yeti who is captured and shipped to Hong Kong to be put on display. This is the story of King Kong pretty much beat by beat. The only differences are that the action takes place in Hong Kong, and the beast’s love interest comes with him from the jungle. The early part of the film features the love interest, a young woman who crashed in the jungle (um, yes, this Yet lives in a jungle), as child – both her parents died in the crash – and she grew up feral. Of course, she’s the only who can calm the beast and, of course, he ends up going on a rampage through Hong Kong. Very much a film of its time and type.

The Cat and the Canary, Radley Metzger (1978, UK). A few days after watching this, in which Honor Blackman had top billing, I heard she had died. It would be an odd coincidence but for the fact I am that age when the cultural icons I grew up with are all approaching their seventies, eighties and nineties, and so their end is not so far away. That’s how it works. Coronavirus has, of course, fucked this up somewhat, among other things, but for the last few years, and for the foreseeable future, I can expect the people who formed the culture of my childhood and teen years to die. Only cartoon characters, with the financial might of Disney behind them, are immortal. Although the with current state of the art CGI and face-capture, who knows? Anyway, The Cat and the Canary is one of those whodunnit plays from the early decades of last century that has been repeatedly turned into movies, so the whole thing feels completely over-rehearsed, and the story runs on rails so well-oiled there’s almost no traction for the viewer. The thesps here are all on form, the bumps in the plot have been ironed flat through repetition, and trying to second-guess what’s going on is an intellectual exercise with almost no sense of satisfaction when guesses prove correct. Meh.

Edward II, Derek Jarman (1991, UK). Jarman’s choice of material may have initially appeared to be eclectic, but on consideration it displays a sort of attempt at validation of a public school education – I mean: Shakespeare plays, philosophy, Roman history, art… None, of the face of it, especially controversial, but neither is it the usual material mined by British art house directors. In Jarman’s favour, he was more concerned with the presentation of stories created by others, and not on creating his own stories; and focusing entirely on presentation is about as auteur as you can get… And Jarman certainly raised that bar as high as he could get away with – not just the casual anachronisms, but also the use of black-box theatre, his casting choices, and so on… In that respect, I suppose Shakespeare’s – or in this case, Marlowe’s – plays are almost perfect fodder because they foreground dialogue. I still find it slightly boggling that I’ve found myself so much a fan of  Jarman’s work. When I was a teenager, Blue struck me as massively self-indulgent, but around the same time, the early 1980s, I remember watching Caravaggio and thinking it very good. I suppose I just needed to see more of his oeuvre to truly appreciate it. So kudos to BFI for the two blu-ray box sets of his films. Which I will treasure.

Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (AKA season 3) (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks for many years, and was so excited when it appeared on DVD, I kept on buying each new “more” complete edition as it was released. But the last thing I though it ever need was a third season. Nonetheless, David Lynch and Mark Frost went ahead and made one and… it’s probably the best piece of television made in 2018. It is is also completely insane. There is no point in summarising the plot, which I’m fairly sure is impossible anyway. Some of the cast from the original two seasons who appear in this seemed out their depth at times, and didn’t compare favourably with newly-cast actors – but then I think some of them had been retired from acting for many years. Certainly, Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series no longer presented as a soap opera (however strange), but as more of twenty-first century style genre thriller. The cinematography, on the other hand, was just so much better than is typical for a TV series, and perhaps even better than I remembered from Lynch’s films. It’s going to take a couple of watches to fully appreciate this series, however.

Farmageddon, Will Becher & Richard Phelan (2019, UK). Shaun the Sheep, eh? A minor character from a Wallace and Gromit short film. And now we have a feature-length movie about him. Wasn’t there a TV series too? And didn’t the penguin from The Wrong Trousers get a starring vehicle? I mean, I’m not complaining: these are fine comic characters. and Farmaggedon, which feels overly “Hollywoodized” and not entirely necessarily, and has a plot that is way too familiar, is still very entertaining. In fact, the scene where the young alien visits a local supermarket and downs lots of sweets and pop in quick succession had me in stitches. This is good clean family fun, with perhaps a little less wit than Wallace and Gromit, but more than its fair share of slapstick. Fun.

Raja Vaaru Raani Gaaru, Ravi Kirn Kola (2019, India). Low-key – if that term could be used for any of India’s cinemas – Telugu rom com about a young couple in a village. He is unable to express his love, she goes away to get educated, and doesn’t return for three years. So, your standard Bollywood plot: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But without the first part. Told in flashback by a pair of comic sidekicks. It’s all so feel-good parts of it feel like an advert for butter or something. A nice film.

The Early Bird, Robert Asher (1955, UK). This was a blast from the past. I remember watching it as a kid – although I’d never remembered its title – and had fond memories of it, and star Norman Wisdom, for many many years. And having now watched it as an adult, it is every bit as funny as I remembered. Wisdom plays a milkman for a small local company, which actually still uses a horse. Their territory is invaded by “Amalgamated Dairies”, who use electric milk floats and dirty tricks… And it’s a story that has played out time and time again in the real world – Stagecoach, anyone? – and yet still successive Tory governments refuse to make such tactics illegal. This film is sixty-five years old! How much longer do we have to put up with this shit? Okay, so everyone – well, every Brit – loves an underdog, and Wisdom plays the ultimate one here. Plus, some of the comic set-pieces are absolutely superb. The scene where Wisdom trashes the house and garden of the head of Amalgamated Dairies had me in tears. It’s gloriously pure slapstick. Which perhaps, on reflection, probably detracts from the message. Or was that all such films were sixty-five years ago? Slapstick, not message? I think of the early Carry On films, and they were deeply critical of British institutions, like national service and the NHS – and, later, beauty contests – but they used humour and were never seen as satire or social commentary. The UK film industry had its Angry Young Men and its kitchen-sink dramas, and they apparently filled that niche. It’s a peculiar blindness where you accept being repeatedly punched in the face, but a custard pie is just “harmless fun” and meaningless. But that’s the British voter for you.

Knives Out, Rian Johnson (2019, USA). Johnson was an odd choice to helm the second film of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Last Jedi, and while he fucked up some things big time – bombs in space, FFS! – he introduced a number of interesting ideas into the mythos, most of which were sadly retconned by creative vacuum JJ Abrams in the final film of the trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker. Whatever. Despite a sad puppy backlash to his Star Wars movie, Johnson came out of the franchise with a mostly positive reputation. And Knives Out, an old school Cluedo-style whodunnit, has only improved it. And yet, like his Star Wars contribution, it’s a genre film that misunderstands its genre but succeeds because it is entertaining. On the one hand, I don’t think Hollywood even bothers with genre as a concept anymore; and on the other, I’m not sure they’re wrong to ignore it. So, first, the whodunnit, especially in its purest form, as repeatedly used by Agatha Christie and Scooby Doo: crime takes place, limited number of suspects, clever detective works through clues, alibis, timelines, etc, to discover identity of murderer. In Knives Out, a private investigator is hired to investigate a suicide, which turns out to be perhaps be a murder – and in true, Cluedo-fashion, everyone has a motive. Except the film spends more time on the dynamics in  the family than it does the mechanics of the crime. The twistiness of the plot had its moments, although it did lead to a couple of somewhat implausible set-pieces. Still, the cast were good – although to a non-US viewer, Daniel Craig’s accent sounds more like a parody than an accurate attempt – and Johnson made excellent use of his main setting. But this is not that better than The Cat and the Canary, but without the advantage of several decades of polish on stage and silver screen.

Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter (2001, USA). No, I’d never seen this, although I’ve seen the sequel. Yes, my life would have been entirely unchanged had I never seen it. And yet, for a Pixar film mangled by Disney, it’s not all that bad. Monsters from an alternate universe sneak into kids’ bedrooms and scare them, and the alternate universe is fuelled by their screams. I don’t remember ever being afraid of a monster under the bed or in the wardrobe (UK homes do not have generally walk-in closets; nor did apartments in the Middle East); and if I had, I’d have lain there in silent fear… But this is a kid’s film, with all the logic that implies, and while it makes a good fist of its premise, its whole pastiche of nine-to-five and industrial relations… Well, you have to wonder who it’s aimed it. In fact, the entire movie is like that: a premise that would appeal to kids wrapped around a plot that only makes sense to adults. No wonder the film was successful; no wonder it’s pretty much forgotten twenty years later.


1 Comment

Movie roundup 2020, #2

It’s been a while since my last post. I have no excuses. And now the world is falling apart – and if I was glad I moved to Sweden last year, I’m profoundly grateful now given all that’s going down. Still, social distancing doesn’t mean I can’t write blog posts. If anything, it should result in more opportunities to write them. And maybe even some fiction. We shall see. For now, another quick run-through of my recent viewing.

Glitterbug, Derek Jarman (1994, UK). Yet more Jarman. Often described as his final film, it’s a compilation of shorts – home movies, pretty much – shot by Jarman but put together by others for a BBC2 programme and broadcast after Jarman’s death. There’s a sort of narrative, given that the shorts document Jarman’s life and travels and friendships, especially that with Tilda Swinton, who appears in several of the films. It’s definitely one for fans, although by its very nature it could hardly not be.

Song of the South, Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson (1946, USA). A Disney mix of animation and live-action that has almost achieved cult status for being so racist. It’s based on the Uncle Remus stories, which are not themselves racist although the presentation of them, and the black culture of the time, relied overmuch on racist stereotypes. It’s clear Disney were not making an explicitly racist film and just screwed up big time. But… the US is the world leader in racism, so it’s no surprise Disney made such a bad job despite relatively benign intentions. Given the amount of time that’s passed since the film’s release, it’s perhaps safest to view it as an historical document – it’s still racist, and still offensive, but structurally, and production-wise, it’s also very much a Disney film of its time. It’s not a bad movie per se, but I’m glad it’s a movie that’s considered offensive – because a world in which it was not considered offensive would not be a very nice world. This is not an opinion I will share on Twitter…

Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley (2019, USA). Stanley comes out of retirement for a pet-project adaptation of a favourite Lovecraft short story – and not the first time the story has been adapted. This version stars Nicolas Cage in “slightly unhinged” mode, which actually works really well with the material, but does unfortunately throw the rest of the cast into the, ahem, shade. The presentation of the alien colour – a weird violet shade – also works well. But despite all that, this is just a grade a tad higher than B-movie.

The Goldfinch, John Crowley (2019, USA). Literary bestseller from a couple of years ago from a literary sensation who has managed to publish three novels in nearly thirty years, all of which have been hugely successful. How does that work? Especially when their stories are so dull. I’m told the novel is good, but this movie has very little to recommend it. Dull New York literary stereotypes in some sort of dull New York stereotype plot kickstarted by an atrocity – an entirely implausible bombing of an art museum – that leads to a secret no one really cares about that apparently blights a number of dull New York literary stereotype lives. Literary fiction has a bad name because of films like this. Avoid.

I worked my way through the Harry Potter movies over a couple of weeks. I’ll not bother listing the titles. There’s an interesting transformation that takes place as the series progresses. Initially, it’s all Jenkinson Goes to Wizard School and jolly magical public school japes. I’m completely mystified by how popular the series – the books, that is – became. They’re not very well written, not very well constructed, and entirely ignorant in their uncritical borrowing of children’s fantasy tropes. By about the fourth film, however, it’s all turned into a bit of a generic high fantasy, with its Peasant Saviour and Dark Lord and Wise Mentor and back-story and mythos. Rowling’s completely tone-deaf approach to appropriating tropes and world-building from a variety of sources throws up a few interesting variations, and some of the characters do start to develop real pathos. But then it all turns into wannabe Star Wars, and then the bad guys are outed as complete Nazis, and you have to wonder how anyone could see the last two films, or read the final book, and not see the somewhat thumpingly obvious allegory. Sigh.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Francesco Stefani (1957, Germany). I’ve been told this movie has psychologically scarred a generation of German children, and it’s easy to understand why. I only survived unscathed thanks to the fortifying effects of a bottle of wine – not fortified wine, I hasted to add, although that might have proven more effective. The Singing Ringing Tree is a fairy tale of some sort, turned into a feature film. But, well, weird.

The Silence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1998, Iran). A blind boy in Tajikistan is forced to support his family. His blindness has given the boy super astute hearing and he hires himself out as a musical instrument tuner. Unfortunately, whenever he hears music, he forgets whatever it is he is supposed to be doing. Makhmalbaf had always been somewhat elliptical when ti comes to plot and this film is no exception. But it looks great and tells a good story, so worth seeing.

Aliens, James Cameron (1986, USA). Many people think this is the best of the Alien films. They’re wrong. While Cameron did an amazing job of world-building, he turned the Gothic horror of the first film into just another Vietnam War movie. Thirty-five years later, a lot of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad, although the special effects, world-building and plot have stood the test of time. The whole Vietnam soldier thing just doesn’t play these days, and certainly not outside the US, even if it ever did. A polished addition to the franchise, but only looks good when its sequels are considered.

Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Surender Reddy (2019, India). Tollywood historical epic, three hours of over-the-top resistance to East India Company depredations of Andhra Pradesh. The title character tries to unite all the feuding warlords to fight the British but even being some sort of super-duper paragon isn’t enough to win their support. There’s been a bunch of these films in recent years, although none, of course, end happily – the British weren’t kicked out until 1947, as any fule kno. Bloody entertaining films, though.

Alien 3, David Fincher (1992, USA). A famously difficult production that has few fans even today. I was surprised at how, well, good-looking a movie it was. I’d also forgotten how English too. None of the sequels are a patch on the original, but this was surprisingly better than I’d remembered.

Alien: Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1997). I loved the movies Jeunet made with Caro, so putting the pair of them on the next entry in the Alien franchise should have produced cinematic gold. But, oh dear… I’d remembered the film as being pretty bad, but this rewatch did not go well. The dialogue was appalling, even worse than Aliens, and Ron Perlman’s character was a walking cliché and hugely offensive. A few nice set-pieces could not rescue a plot that makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Dishonored Lady, Robert Stevenson (1947, USA). Hedy Lamarr was great. Very clever woman, led a fascinating life. Not, it has to be said, a brilliant actress, although she’s very watchable in this star vehicle. Successful art editor under pressure from various men in her life has a breakdown, chucks it all away, downsizes, takes a new identity and becomes a painter. Hunky pathologist lives next door, romance ensues, but past returns to haunt her. They churned these out by the Swedish mile (that’s 10 km, by the way) back in the 1940s.

The Garden, Derek Jarman (1990, UK). Experimental film from one of the UK’s best experimental directors. The effects are a little crude, even for 1990, although the film was made with a small budget, and the “subjective musings” which form the bulk of the film are hardly subtle… but then Jarman was reacting to a far-from-subtle attack on gay culture. Jarman had an excellent eye and there is some stunning imagery here. It sometimes obscures the plot – but the experimental nature of the movie more or less blends it all together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Still a huge fan of Jarman’s films, which would have come as a complete surprise to twenty-year-old me.

Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019, South Korea). Surprising winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture (and other Oscars), the first non-English film to ever win it. It’s a bafflingly non-safe choice for the awards, and claiming it won because it was the best of the nominated films is to ignore the entire history of the Oscars. I liked how it made the house a character in the film, although the final act was all a bit OTT and violent, no doubt deliberately so.

The Palace, Pan Anzi (2013, China). Star-crossed lovers meets palace intrigue in Qing Dynasty China, during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1661 – 1722). Girls are taken at a young age and trained to be palace servants. Some years later, servant woman A and prince X fall in love, but prince X mistakes servant woman B for his love, but servant woman B is having an affair with prince Y, and both X and Y are involved in separate plots for the throne, so Y stitches up X and gets him thrown into prison, where A visits him, but he’s blind so he thinks it is B, but then Y makes his move but he’s backing the crown prince, who fails and so Y is imprisoned and X is released, and X discovers it’s A all along that he’s loved. It’s a fairly standard romance plot, if somewhat convoluted. Well handled with good period detail. Apparently panned by Chinese critics, though.


4 Comments

Movie roundup 2020, #1

This year, I’ve decided not to continue with my previous years’ practice of writing a few hundred words about half a dozen films in a post. Instead, I’ll keep it to a sentence or two per film, and post my Movie roundups less frequently. Hopefully, that’ll force me not to rely on easy content and actually write blog posts that are a little meatier, like, you know, actual criticism. I used to do it once, you know. But about science fiction, not movies. And I’d like to do it again.

Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I make no apology for it: Alien is one of my favourite films and one of the best movies, to my mind, the genre has produced. Forty years on, and the film still holds up really well, although some of the physical effects looks a bit cheap by modern CGI standards. But still a ground-breaking film.

Tag, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Extremely weird Japanese film about a schoolgirl who finds herself in a series of violent encounters, like a high school massacre, and it’s all to do with levels in a video game – which is not spoilery as it’s pretty easy to guess. Quite gory in places, and sort of fun when it’s not being too weird.

Heroes of the East, Lau Kar Leung (1978, China). Not really China as this is a Shaw Brothers movie, from Hong Kong, which in 1978 was a British protectorate. It’s notable for pitting Japanese martial arts against Chinese ones, but it’s pretty clear where the film-makers’ sympathies lie (clue: it was made in Hong Kong). As a 40 year old kung fu movie, it’s not bad; as a wu xia movie, bearing in mind the current state of the genre, it leaves a lot to be desired. Still worth seeing, but with the right expectations.

Shelter, Eran Riklis (2017, Israel). Taut thriller in which a Mossad agent babysits a Lebanese informant undergoing plastic surgery in Germany. The US and UK press and governments are happy to parrot the propaganda of the Israeli regime but there are plenty of Israeli – and Palestinian – creators in cinema and literature who give much more nuanced, and accurate, views on the situation. Worth seeking out.

Terminator: Dark Fate, Tim Miller (2019, USA). In which the protagonists of a 1984 cult film – that’s 36 years ago, by the way – are dragged out of retirement, as are the actors who played them, in service to a plot that retcons the retcons of the franchise. And possibly the retcons of the retcons of the rectons too. If this were a book they would say, “trees died for this”. Arnie displays surprising gravitas but he still can’t fucking act.

Lost and Found, Melvin Frank (1979, USA). Dreadful seventies “lit fic” movie in which neurotic US academic marries forceful UK secretary after they have a series of semi-humorous encounters while holidaying in the Alps. Marriage does not go as expected. No shit. There are thousands of novels written on this same subject, one or two of them might even be worth reading. The same is likely true for movies.

Cider with Rosie, Philippa Lowthorpe (2015, UK). Surprisingly late adaptation of a 1959 book, which I studied at school. Which makes me sound older than I am. I read it in the late 1970s, okay? It’s all West Country post-WWI bucolicism, which proves to be less a celebration of a lost way of life than an elegy to it. Surprisingly effective and affective.

Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria (2019, USA). Not intended as a J.Lo vehicle, but she plays a major role and steals the film. After the 2008 financial crisis shrinks their client base, a group of lap dancers start rolling brokers. It’s basically criminal but I’ve no sympathy for the brokers, they’re the scum who impoverished everyone and still walked away with seven-figure bonuses. They belong in jail. Certainly more than the women in this film who stole from them. Smart thriller.

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans, Dominic Brigstocke (2019, UK). The Horrible Histories schtick – jokey versions of UK history for kids, with jokes and songs – has been going now for a while and quite successfully. This is their first try at a feature film and it’s well, more of what they do. It’s pretty much the legend of Boudicca, centred around a useless Roman teenager who upsets Nero and finds himself posted to Brittanica and the daughter of a Celtic chieftain whose father has been ripped off big-time by the Romans. The relationship is a children’s TV staple, there’s plenty of comedy through the use of anachronisms, and it all climaxes with the Battle of Watling Street. Not that much is known about Boudicca – no one knows how or when she died, for example – but the film makes a feature of its research. For all that it’s a comedy, this is smartly-told actual history.

Shoot First, Die Later, Fernando DiLeo (1974, Italy). Typical giallo police procedural from the title right through to the story’s climax. Corrupt detective discovers there’s a line he won’t cross – drugs, of course – but it’s too late, they have him by the short and curlies. Bodies start to turn up, and the detective gets increasingly desperate as he tries to hide his complicity. But his father, a tough old police sergeant, becomes suspicious… I’ve said before that gialli are an acquired taste, and some stand out more than others… but many are little more than Italian takes on US B-movies. Which, sadly, this one is.

Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember when this film was released and the idea of screen that displayed a single colour for 79 minutes, while voices told the story of the film… struck me as unreasonably pretentious and a waste of whatever government money was involved in the making of it. Having since, to my surprise, become an enormous fan of Jarman’s works. and having now watched Blue – several times, it must be said – I love it. I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice all day. And the shade of blue on the screen – International Klein Blue – is weirdly relaxing. It’s a bit like listening to an audio book in bed with the lights off, but the blue is more peaceful than a darkened room. The more Jarman I see, the more I think he can do no wrong.

The Designated Victim, Maurizio Lucidi (1971, Italy). Giallo take on Strangers on a Train. Ad exec wants to sell out (and head for South America with his mistress) but wife refuses to sell their share. In Venice, he meets a louche aristocrat who proposes a deal: he will kill the wife if ad exec will murder aristocrat’s brother. And when ad exec refuses, aristocrat murders his wife anyway and frames ad exec. Very much a 1970s Italian thriller, not helped by the aristocrat’s uncanny resemblance to Russell Brand.

El Angel, Luis Ortega (2018, Argentina). Borderline accurate treatment of twenty-something serial killer Carlo Robledo Puch, active in Argetina in the early 1970s, and played with an impressive lack of affect by Lorrenzo Ferro. Puch and his fellows were petty criminals, who robbed shops and nightclubs, but Puch was clearly a psychopath and was eventually indicted for eleven murders and seventeen robberies. Plus assisted rape and attempted rape. These were not nice people, and the film is very clear about that.

Bedelia, Lance Comfort (1946, UK). US novel about a woman with a succession of husbands who died suspicious deaths, by the author of the novel from which classic noir Laura was adapted, transplanted to the UK thanks to the author’s poor treatment by Hollywood over her previous novel. Those were the days. The transplant works fine, although the Yorkshire accents are suspect, and Margaret Lockwood shows she should have had a much bigger career; but it’s all a bit clichéd and the thin gloss of Englishness can’t save a standard noir plot.

1917, Sam Mendes (2016. UK). “Fake single take is remarkable achievement”. Which is sort of what all the reviews said. Which is a bit like praising Tobey Maguire for his building-swinging abilities in Spider-Man. Not a patch on Dunkirk, and everyone comes out of it a bit too, well, nice. I mean, we all know most of the officers were inbred halfwits with about as much military sense as the Empress of Blandings. That’s what most of the poetry says, that’s what most of the novels set during WWI says. 1917 feels a bit like the cinematic equivalent of a Jessie Pope poem, and given the current situation in the UK its timing, and possible motive, is somewhat suspicious.

Draug, Klas Persson & Karin Engman (2018, Sweden). Low budget horror film set in eleventh century Sweden, in which a member of the king’s guard and his adopted daughter, a shield maiden, head for the deep forest to track down a missing missionary. They suspect pagan rebels, but the culprit is far less earthly. Atmospheric, and good turns by most of the cast. The final twist isn’t much of a surprise but the trip there more than pays off. Worth seeing.


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2019, #22

Well, that’s five seasons of Elementary binge-watched. I liked the set-up, and the series had its moments, but it also had a tendency to jump the shark every now and again. And the fifth season was basically a serial with  a not particularly interesting story arc. But here are some films…

Padosan, Jyoti Swaroop (1968, India). Given how many films Bollywood has made, and given that pretty much all of them follow the pattern boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, sooner or later one of the ones I watched was going to “borrow” the plot from Cyrano de Bergerac. The difference here is that the suitor uses song to charm his beloved – or rather, he lipsynchs to a friend singing out of sight of his beloved (who loves in the house next-door, and they’re conducting their love affair from the window of one house to a window of the other. There’s an unintended irony here, given that the vast majority of Bollywood stars don’t sing their own songs but mime to playback singers, and some of the playback singers are as famous as the Bollywood stars whose singing voices they provide. This, of course, is only the first part of the formula. The girl discovers the fakery and retaliates by agreeing to a marriage proposal from the boy’s uncle (although they’re not “boy” and “girl” as he’s in his late thirties and she’s in her mid-twenties). In an effort to win back his love, the boy goes all Romeo & Juliet and fakes his suicide. This is not a good idea, in fact it’s a really bad idea. But it appears to work, and the two are finally reunited. Despite some dodgy bits, this is a fun film, chiefly because its cast looks like they’re having fun. It’s considered “one of the best comedy films made in Hindi film history”, according to Wikipedia, and it’s not hard to see why.

Stockholm, Robert Budreau (2018, USA). When I saw this film, it was titled Stockholm, after Stockholm Syndrome, which was named for the bank robbery depicted in this film. But apparently the UK DVD distributors are preparing for Brexit by removing the name of an EU capital from the cover. Because The Captor is a really dumb title, and pretty much ignores the whole point of the film. Although it is, to be fair, not a great movie. Its cast is predominantly British or American, but they all put on bad Swedish accents. Except they pronounce all the Swedish names incorrectly. Anyway, habitual criminal and his accomplices rob bank, end up in hostage situation, and it all escalates quickly, with the prime minister involved and all sorts of demands and promises made. Oh, and one of the hostages started to identify with the bank robbers. Dodgy Swedish accents aside, Stockholm fails dismally because it makes a bank robbery boring. I mean, hostage situations should be tense and dramatic, even if nothing is actually happening, but Stockholm is just Ethan Hawke stomping about the place like a television cowboy. Avoid.

The Last of England, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). If you had asked me twenty years ago what I thought of Derek Jarman’s films, I might have mentioned being impressed in my teens by Caravaggio but otherwise thinking his work pretentious tosh. But a few years I watched Wittgenstein and thought it really good, and then the BFI released the Derek Jarman Volume 1: 1972 – 1986 Blu-ray collection, and I bought it on a whim… and now I’m a bit of a fan of his movies and I have Volume 2: 1987 – 1994. Part of the reason I’ve become a fan is because Jarman was an experimental film-maker, and while I’ve re-evaluated those of his movies I’d seen before, it’s his experimental films I find myself liking the most. Such as The Last of England. It’s almost impossible to describe, a series of images and scenes set in a post-apocalyptic UK, inspired by Thatcher’s Britain (we didn’t know when we were well off, not that we were: but compared to now? If Thatcher was still alive, this Brexshit would probably see even her rehabilitated. Ugh. What a horrible thought), a painting by Ford Madox Brown, whose title the film takes, and a number of poems. It’s surprisingly effective, both chilling and elegiac. More so, I think, because I remember the late 1980s, and I remember Thatcher’s Britain and Clause 28 and all the things that fed into The Last of England. Good stuff.

The Aristocats, Wolfgang Reitherman (1970, USA). One of many informal film projects I’ve been running – if that’s not too, well, organised a way to describe it – is working my way through all the Disney films. The classic animated films, of course; but even the obscure live action ones, if I can find them. Some of the animated films I obviously saw as a kid (many of them are older than me; yes, hard to believe); but my memories of them are spotty at best. I think I saw The Aristocats back then. I’ve certainly been aware of the movie since I was a child. But then we had a LP of songs from Disney films when I was young and perhaps it was appearing about the film from listening to that… Stereotypical rich old cat woman plans to leave her riches to her cat, but greedy butler overhears and kidnaps the felines – it should be “catnap”, shouldn’t it, but that means something different… Anyway, he dumps the cats in the country (this is early twentieth century France), but they are rescued by a streetwise alley cat, who helps them return home. For some reason, I remembered the characters from this film, but not the story, nor quite how, well, charming it is. It’s been a mixed bag watching these classic Disney animated films, and I’ve been surprised by which ones I’ve really liked and which I’ve found disappointing.The Aristocats definitely goes in the first group.

Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez (2019,USA). So where my childhood was Disney cartoons and surreal British kids’ TV series and bad US TV shows like The Incredible Hulk, people much younger than myself grew up with Japanese properties mangled for the US market. And this film is a US adaptation of an early 1990s Japanese manga/anime series that is apparently quite well-known among a certain age-group. Which si not me. So I knew nothing about it when I sat down to watch the film… and I know just as little having watched it. Christophe Waltz plays a scientist who runs a sort of street clinic for robots and cyborgs, and who discovers a cyborg head on a rubbish heap. He builds a body for the head, a teenage girl’s body, of course, because he lost his daughter years before. And the cyborg turns out to be some sort of super-soldier or something and there’s a powerplay between various people in a floating city of ultra-rich people and I really couldn’t give a toss abut an hour into the movie… and those eyes. They were… offputting. Yes, there is a style of anime which features over-sized eyes, and in the original manga on which Alita: Battle Angel Alita’s eyes were indeed larger than normal, if not as large as in other manga… But it looks weird in a live-action film, sort of like it’s gone through the uncanny valley and come out the other side. I didn’t like this film, and I’m really tired of cyberpunk dystopian futures (although I recognise the original property on which this film is based is thirty years old). Meh.

Singh is Kinng, Anees Bazmee (2008, India). Amazon Prime is proving really good for Indian films. Not just Bollywood, but also Tollywood and Kollywood. And classic movies as well as more recent fare. Singh is Kinng opens with a remarkable comedy sequence in which the title character, Happy Singh, attempts to catch a chicken and manages to demolish his village. Actually, it opens with a piece of OTT gangster violence in Australia. But the chicken sequence is really good. Anyway, the gangster, Lucky Singh, is Happy’s cousin and someone is out to kill him, and the village wants to get rid of Happy… so they send him to Australia to help out his cousin. After a detour via Egypt, where Happy meets the love of his life, he ends up in Australia, where he inadvertently puts Lucky into a coma. And everyone persuades themselves that Happy is the perfect person to run Lucky’s huge criminal empire while Lucky is indisposed. This was a lot of fun. The humour’s broad, and the characters a bit stereotypical, but the set-pieces are good and the film is genuinely funny in places. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940


2 Comments

Moving pictures 2018, #35

A good mix, nothing too populist, but instead some good films from a number of different countries… Well, okay, maybe not all of them are that good…

Caravaggio*, Derek Jarman (1986, UK). That’s the last of the Derek Jarman box set and it’s a film I first saw many years ago – not at school, as it was released two years after I sat my A Levels, but perhaps when I was a university student. I don’t remember, I just remember the film itself… and this rewatch did not in that respect provide any surprises. There were a few scenes I had forgotten, but much of the film had remained in memory. Which I guess means something. Jarman’s use of deliberately anachronistic set dressing I’d certainly remembered, so the appearance of trucks and such in some scenes did not seem as shocking as perhaps intended. Which is not to say they did not perform their purpose – perhaps even more so, because the shock value no longer applied, I could see them for what they were. Which was elements of an idiosyncratic retelling of the life of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, which used his paintings – or those that have survived – as inspiration to document parts of his life. The  title role is played by Nigel Terry, who has never been better, but there are plenty of other familiar faces in there. Also in the cast is Sean Bean, in his first major role, as is Tilda Swinton, whom he snogs. Which was weird. The film is mostly told from Caravaggio’s death-bed, using it to jump back to incidents in his life. It works as well inasmuch as it allows for commentary. The film’s aesthetic, anachronisms and all, I thought especially effective, and I ended up liking the film more than I had expected. I bought this box set on a whim, and because I’d not seen Jubilee but some recent watches on Jarman’s films had persuaded me it might be worth a punt. And it was indeed. It’s even turned me into a sort of fan of Jarman’s films, which I wasn’t before. I’m now eagerly awaiting the Volume 2 box set.

Black Rose Mansion, Kinji Fukasaku (1969, Japan). Fukasaku, who is best known these days for his film of Battle Royale, made two films with famous Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (AKA Akihiro Maruyama) – this one and Kurotokage (see here). Having seen both, I can definitely say Kurotokage is the better of the two. Which is not to say Black Rose Mansion, AKA Kuro bara no yakata, is bad. It has its moments. Miwa plays the mysterious singer in the titular roadhouse. Not only is Ryuko’s past a mystery, but it also seems wildly inconsistent, as a series of men turn up claiming to be her lover and she refuses to admit whether she had affairs with them. It is, to be honest, all a little over the top, especially given that some of them profess their undying love by killing themselves and the deaths are presented with all the technicolor relish of B-movies. The whole thing began to pall after a while, it must be said, given that Miwa’s character remained stubbornly mute on her past and the parade of past lovers didn’t seem to prove anything. If you must watch a camp 1960s Japanese thriller, then I’d recommend Kurotokage over this one.

Okja, Bong Joon-ho (2017, South Korea). This was recommended by a number of friends, both those who watch Korean cinema and those who don’t. And having now seen it, I can understand why, as it sort of feels like a Korean film without actually being one. Although it certainly opens like a Hollywood movie. A US company has a bred a super-pig and sent super piglets around the world to be reared by indigenous farmers. Ten years later, they will be assessed and the best will win a prize. There’s a problem right there – not just the genetically-engineered pig, but the idea of using subsistence level farmers to grow it, given that the governmental and corporate world have been trying to wipe out subsistence level farmers for decades. Anyway, the one in South Korea, called Okja by the young woman who cares for it, wins and is shipped to New York for the ceremony. But an animal rights group try to prevent this, as they’re convinced the corporation’s motives are not as advertised. And it’s all the slightly off-kilter approach Boon brings to a story married to the usual Hollywood glib depiction of corporatisation and the near-future, sort of like cyberpunk with its raison d’être surgically removed so smoothly it hasn’t even noticed… It didn’t help that the titular super-pig looked more like a hippo, or that Tilda Swinton, playing the twin sisters who ran the corporation chewed the scenery more than the super-pig… It all felt like a fun movie that was trying so hard to appeal to a Hollywood market it had lost whatever charm it might have had. It looked very nice, but it was not very likeable.

Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975, Senegal). Xala, pronounced khala, means “temporary impotence” in Wolof, and is also the title of the novel by Sembène from which this film was adapted. The film opens with a voiceover describing Senegal’s independence, with actors playing the parts of the new Senegalese government. One of these, a minister, is congratulated on his upcoming nuptials. To a woman less than half his age. And she’s his third wife. I’m sorry, I don’t give a shit what your religion is, but there’s no justification for polygamy. Women are not property. Sembène is making the same point, although he’s also setting out an allegory about independence, in which the new wife is the country’s new-found freedom. Which results in impotence – the minister can’t get it up despite the manifold attractions of his new wife. He is not only too wedded to the old ways, he prospered too well under them. Now he has control, he doesn’t know what to do with it. So to speak. I have to date seen five films by Ousmane Sembène and I think they’re all pretty damn good. It’s not that they’re polished pieces of work, because they’re not – there are no special effects, no studio sets, most of the cast are non-professional, Sembène’s lack of resource as usually there to see on the screen… But they’re so well-presented. Not just as depictions of life in Senegal – in Dakar – at the time of filming, but also as drama and as political statements. Sembène made 13 movies (four of them shorts) and wrote ten novels. I want to see all his films, and have a bash at some of his novels.

Winter Kills, William Richert (1979, USA). This film is allegedly a forgotten classic, and “forgotten” certainly applies to it as I’d never heard of it until I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. And yet it received many positive reviews on its initial release. It also had a troubled production history, and I wonder if that has added to the film’s reputation… because as a straight-up thriller it leaves something to be desired, and as a comedy, black or otherwise, it fails dismally; although it nevertheless manages to mostly entertain. The plot is a thinly-disguised reference to the assassination of JFK. Twenty years after the death of the president, his brother is approached with evidence demonstrating the commonly-accepted narrative is wrong. So he investigates further, and follows a chain of anecdote and interview to… I’m not sure if it’s worth the spoiler. I can’t honestly see what was so good about this film it gained the label “forgotten classic”. The cast are pretty good, true, but the plot stumbles from the obvious to the inane, and its so-called humour falls flat more often than not. Its production history is actually more entertaining – look it up on Wikipedia. The version I watched was the director’s cut, which is not always the best cut. But, to be honest, it’s hard to see how any cut could make this film a classic unless there were thousands more feet of film left on the cutting-room floor. Best avoided.

Not One Less, Zhang Yimou (1999, China). More Chinese cinema, from a well-known Fifth Generation director. The teacher in a countryside village has to leave for family reasons, so a substitute teacher is sent… but she’s thirteen-years-old and hardly qualified. And it shows initially. When one of the boys runs away to the city to earn money to pay off his mother’s debts, she follows him. But he’s not where he’s supposed to be, so she tries to persuade the radio station manager to broadcast a message to him. Instead, a local TV station take up her story and interview her on air – or at least try to, as she clams up from nervousness. But the boy, who’s living on the streets, sees the broadcast, the two are united, and they’re returned to the village with money and school equipment – chalk, basically – by the TV station, who smell a better story. Everyone in the movies is a non-professional actor, and many filled roles they hold in real life. It gave the whole thing a very documentary air, something I especially like about Sixth Generation movies, and I have to wonder if this is one of their touchstone works. Zhang, from the films of his I’ve seen, has had a varied career, but Not One Less so much resembled the sort of Chinese film I really like that I couldn’t help but love it. The cast of mostly children are really good, especially the two leads, and the whole thing is both excellent commentary and excellent drama. Apparently, the Chinese authorities made Zhang change the text at the end which claims one million children drop out of school due to poverty because the real figure – three to five times that – was too embarrassing. The poverty of the schooling actually shown on the screen should be embarrassment enough. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 918


2 Comments

Moving pictures 2018, #30

Six films, six countries, six languages. And not one of them English. Don’t think I’ve managed that before. And yes, Sebastiane is a British film. But the dialogue is entirely in Vulgar Latin. (On the other hand, there’s some English dialogue in Force Majeure – but the main language is Swedish.)

Sebastiane, Derek Jarman (1976, UK). I’m fairly sure I watched this back in the 1980s, perhaps even when I was at boarding school – although the likelihood of a bunch of fifteen or sixteen year old boys watching a homoerotic film set during Roman times with dialogue entirely in Vulgar Latin seems a bit far-fetched. Maybe I watched it during a school vacation. Or maybe when I was a student. Certainly, some parts of the film as I watched this time were familiar to me. The title refers to Saint Sebastian, who was a member of the Diocletian Guard in fourth-century Rome, and exiled to a remote garrison after trying to prevent the murder of one of the emperor’s catamites during an orgy. The orgy opens the film, and pretty much sets the scene for the rest of it. This is not a movie which makes a secret of who it is aimed at. At the garrison, Sebastiane declares himself a pacifist, and is eventually executed for refusing to fight. There are a lot of male bodies in very little clothing either lying around on a beach or fighting with wooden swords. According to Wikipedia, Sebastiane “was controversial for the homoeroticism portrayed between the soldiers and for being dialogued entirely in Latin”, and while I can see the latter being controversial – as indeed is the misuse of “dialogue” as a verb – the former should really not have been a problem in 1976. True, it would limit the film’s release – to pretty much a handful of cinemas in London, I imagine – but even in 1976 a gay film could hardly be controversial. It’s not like Jarman had built up a reputation for making heteronormative crowd-pleasers – Sebastiane was his first feature film after a number of avant garde shorts, many – if not all – of which had gay content. For all that, Sebastiane is… mostly dull. The opening orgy has its moments, is almost Fellini-esque in parts, but once the title character is exiled, the pace slows to a crawl and it often feels like the film is making more of a meal of its nudity and Latin than it really needs to. Despite that, for a first feature, this is quite a polished work, although the camera-work often impresses more than the acting. The more Jarman I watch, the more I’m glad I bought this box set.

Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund (2014, Sweden). I was lent this film by David Tallerman, although I’m not sure what prompted it as he normally lends me weird Korean or anime films. Not that I’m complaining, I hasten to add. A Swedish family are holidaying in the French Alps. One afternoon, while eating lunch on an outside deck of a restaurant, a controlled avalanche is triggered. But it looks much more severe than it is, throwing up lots of snow, which covers the restaurant deck and causes the diners to panic. The husband runs away, leaving his family to the their fate. And when the, er, snow has settled, he tries to make light of his, um, flight. But his wife is not so forgiving. And the rest of the film charts the disintegration of their marriage. It’s one of those films that isn’t at all funny but is described as  a comedy, a black comedy. As a general rule, even black comedies generate one or two laughs. This one didn’t. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s actually really good. Just not very funny. Worth seeing, though.

L’humanité, Bruno Dumont (1999, France). I’ve yet to figure out what to make of this film. It was… odd. Emmanuel Schotté plays a police inspector in a small town in the north of France. A young girl’s body is discovered – she has been brutally raped and murdered. Schotté’s character seems a bit, well, not all there. Almost child-like at times. He reacts badly to the crime. He also spends time with his friends, who seem to accept him on sufferance, and lives with his mother, who bullies him. He interviews two Brits who were on the Eurostar, which passed the crime scene around the right time, but their testimonies prove completely useless, contradicting each other repeatedly. Eventually the crime is solved, but it’s not Schotté’s character who does it. L’humanité is essentially a crime narrative, and sort of the follows the forms, in as much as it features a crime, an investigation, and a resolution. And it mostly follows the unspoken rules of the form, as the killer proves to be a known member of the cast. But the nearest I can get to the way it treats its protagonist, Schotté, is that subgenre of crime novels which feature long angsty paragraphs focusing on the mess the protagonist detective is making of his or her life – although not quite as dourly as in Nordic noir. Scottish noir, perhaps? But the French version of it. Pascale Garnier, maybe? I’m not that well-read in the genre. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

Cruelty, Anton Sigurdsson (2016, Iceland). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and thought it worth a go. I’ve now seen four Icelandic films, and I have to ask: do they ever make happy films? Because the Icelandic title of this movie is Grimmd, and that’s pretty close to the English word which best describes it. Two young girls are found murdered in a wood. A female detective is put on the case. Her boss teams her with an ex-partner against her wishes. The detective focuses on a man she arrested for sex offences years before but never managed to prove her case against him. Registered sex offenders are pulled in, and her partner bullies a confession out of one of them. But that quickly falls apart. It turns out the detective’s brother is a sex offender, but he has been rehabilitated – but this crime results in someone digging up his past. And so his co-workers near beat him to death. Did I mention this was not a cheerful film? I have to wonder if the Icelanders are capable of making cheerful films. And yet it’s a lovely country and the people are extremely friendly. But I have yet to find an Icelandic comedy. If you like Nordic noir, then Cruelty, AKA Grimmd, is a good example; others may find its appeal limited.

Ceddo*, Ousmane Sembène (1977, Senegal). This is one of two films by Sembène on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he is the only representative of his country, Senegal. The other film is Moolaadé (see here). Moolaadé was given a UK DVD release by Artificial Eye in 2004. It’s since been deleted, but copies can still be found. But Ceddo never was, and copies are really hard to find. (For the record, Sembène’s only other film available on sell-through in the UK is Black Girl, released in a dual format edition by the BFI in 2015.) But, Ceddo… The film is set around the time Westerners discovered the tribes of Senegal. And so too has Islam. The traditional monarchy in under threat on two fronts – the local imam wants to convert everyone to Islam, and the white traders are happy to accept anything that doesn’t disrupt their trade in slaves. The common people – the “ceddo” – kidnap the king’s daughter in order to force him to reject both the Muslims and the whites. But the king sides with the Muslims, and various attempts are made to “rescue” the princess. This is not a film that presents a nuanced picture of white/Islamic colonialism, and that’s fair enough as there’s little that’s nuanced about it. A traditional way of life was destroyed in the name of religion and/or commerce. The film is very declamatory, which is a style that appeals to me, with the opening scenes consisting of cast-members appealing to the king for judgement in various matters. The film also looks like nothing you might have seen before – unless you’ve watched other films by Sembène – and if not, why not? – or perhaps a film like Yeelen – and is a fascinating depiction of what I suspect is now a long lost way of life. This is my fourth Sembène film and they really are very good. Given that Ceddo is an historical film, it doesn’t have the punch of Moolaadé, which is set in the present-day. You should still watch both, however.

The Village of No Return, Chen Yu-hsun (2017, Taiwan). It looks like a Taiwanese distributor has gone and dumped a load of films on Amazon Prime, Not that I’m complaining. Admittedly, I watched this because it starred Shu Qi, one of my favourite Chinese actresses, although I’ve not seen her in anything for a while. At some point in China’s past, a village survived by collaborating with a local troop of bandits. But the local warlord needed the village under his control before making a play for the throne. So he sends an agent provocateur in to blow up a few houses, etc. Except the plan goes wrong from the start. He is accidentally poisoned by his wife (Shu Qi), who is kept chained up and had planned to commit suicide – but she couldn’t do it, and he innocently ate the poisoned sandwich. And then a con man poles up to the village with a machine that allows him to selectively edit people’s memories. And after a couple of demonstrations, he uses it to seize control of the village and convince everyone he has always been the chief. But then Shu Qi’s boyfriend, who had joined the bandits, returns and everything falls apart. This film was amusing, if somewhat confusingly plotted. The memory device was presented well, with memories displayed like they were silent films. I don’t think the title is especially accurate, but The Village of No Return is a lot fun.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 912


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2018, #27

I could claim there’s a system to the films I choose to watch, but that would be a lie. It pretty much depends on what I feel like watching – plus a host of other factors, as outlined in a previous post. So I make no apologies for the somewhat scattershot results of my recent viewing…

Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2016, USA). I had this on my rental list, but I was so intrigued by the polarity of the reviews on Amazon that I decided to get a copy for myself. I may joke that these days books only receive 5-star or 1-star reviews, and I suppose that’s just as true of movies, but Kate Plays Christine actually had only 5-star or 1-star/2-star reviews. And the latter were quite uncomplimentary. But they struck me, as so many such reviews do, as having missed the point. Kate Plays Christine is not only an exploration of the real-life character Kate Lyn Shiel plays – Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who committed suicide on air in 1974 – but also about the process of film-making, especially documentary-making. Shiel researches her role very carefully, and this involves interviewing people who knew Chubbock personally. That makes for uncomfortable interviews. More so when the topic of an alleged videotape of Chubbock’s on-air suicide is often raised. But the film also interrogates Chubbock and her life. Her suicide shows something was amiss, although Kate Plays Christine makes no attempt to analyse her motives. Not that they really could as there was little available information about her – back in 1974, people’s lives were not that well documented, people no longer wrote letters as extensively as they had done and the internet comprised a handful of servers accessible only to some academics and engineers… I thought the film fascinating and an interesting exploration of its subjects –  Chubbock, Chubbock’s story, and the presentation of her story to an audience forty years later. So that’s 5 stars from me.

You Were Never Lovelier, William A Seiter (1942, USA). Astaire has had enough of New York so he heads down to Brazil to join his chum, bandleader Xavier Cugat, played by, er, Xavier Cugat. But Astaire can’t get a job, in fact he can’t even get to see impresario Adolphe Menjou. Meanwhile, Menjou’s oldest unmarried daughter, Rita Hayworth, has no intention of getting married. So Menjou plays a Cyrano de Bergerac on her, and sends orchids and poems as if from a secret beau. Events conspire to make her think it’s Astaire. He goes along with it for a spot at Menjou’s club. It’s not the most original plot in the world, and Astaire is not as likeable as he usually is. But I hadn’t realised Hayworth was so good a dancer, and she more than holds her own with Astaire. Having said that, I much prefer Ginger Rogers as a partner for him. I mean, Hayworth is great, no doubt about that. But I see her more as a femme fatale, or in something like Gentleman Prefer Blondes, than I do as a comic foil and dancing partner to Fred Astaire. In which role, Ginger Rogers was excellent. Indeed she was excellent before that, as I learnt when I watched the films in the Busby Berkeley box sets I own. You Were Never Lovelier was good but, let’s face it, it’s a film for fans of Astaire, Hayworth, or 1940s movies.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos (2017, Ireland). The only other film by Lanthimos I’ve seen is Dogtooth (see here), and it was… odd. This is not necessarily a bad thing in my book, and I did think Dogtooth very good. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Lanthimos, a Greek director, working in the Hollywood system, Hollywood has a bad record of adapting, or attempting to co-opt, world or art house directors. Michael Haneke’s Hollywood remake of Funny Games is inferior to his Austrian original; George Sluizer’s Hollywood remake of The Vanishing is inferior to his Dutch original. And that’s when the original directors are involved! But then The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not actually Hollywood, as it’s an Irish production that happens to be filmed in the US with US characters (played by an Irish, Australian and American cast). But it is also quite clearly a Yanthimos film. It’s not just the batshit plot, which toys with genre without fully committing to it, but also the stilted way in which the cast play their parts. Colin Farell plays a heart surgeon who befriends a teenage boy whose father had died in a car accident. He introduces the boy to his family. But it transpires the father died on the operating table under Farrell’s knife, and the boy has engineered the friendship so he can get close to the family. And curse them. So Farrell’s son, the youngest, is mysteriously paralysed from the waist down. Then he refuses to eat. The last stage is bleeding from the eyes. Unless Farrell agrees to murder one of his family in reparation. It’s a bonkers story – inspired, apparently, by a play by Euripides – but the weird, almost hypnotised, way everyone plays their parts gives it a bizarre sense of authority. Perhaps the lack of naturalism suits the unnatural plot; I don’t know. A very good film, whatever the reason.

The Angelic Conversation, Derek Jarman (1985, UK). I thought I had a handle on Jarman’s films after seeing The Tempest and then Jubilee, and relying on vague memories of Caravaggio, but I’d forgotten he was an experimental film-maker, and his resolutely amateurish aesthetic was only one element of it. After all, there was Blue, which I may not have seen but knew about. (And, okay, Wittgenstein, doesn’t quite fit in there, but given that it’s the film that persuaded me to give Jarman another go I think that’s fair). Anyway, all of that and I come to The Angelic Conversation, which is mid-career Jarman, made after a six-year gap since The Tempest and contemporary with Caravaggio. It comprises 78 minutes of filtered footage of two men, or sometimes just one of them, in a sort of dreamlike landscape, while Dame Judi Dench reads sonnets by Shakespeare. And some mostly atonal music. And, er, that’s it. The combination proves effective – and the imagery is often quite beautiful – but at 78 minutes it does outstay its welcome somewhat. Most of the avant garde/experimental films I’ve seen to date have been short, between 3 and 30 minutes. Jarman clearly was not afraid of trying his audience’s patience, or pushing their willingness to spend time watching his films. I don’t know enough about his work to determine if that was a deliberate policy on his part or simply something that never occurred to him. Given there are another four films in this box set, not to mention a shitload of extras, I will no doubt find out. Despite only being a third of the way into this first collection, I must admit I have every intention of buying Volume 2 when it is released.

Anon, Andrew Niccol (2018, UK). Niccol’s Gattaca is generally regarded as one of the best sf films of the last 25 years, but I’ve never really been a fan of it. His subsequent genre films – S1m0ne and In Time, especially – may have been relatively successful but are not so well regarded. Nonetheless, he appears to be seen as a non-commercial genre director who has yet to produce a really great genre film. Some might consider Anon to be that film. I’m not so sure. It has a neat conceit at its core, but it feels a bit tired, a bit like an argument we want to be over because we already know what the conclusion should be. But then, “we” – ie, me – are genre fans, so this is shit we’ve been retreading for forty-plus years and perhaps it’s not so tired to to the general movie-seeing public. In the near-future of the film, people’s entire lives are uploaded to “the Ether” (this is science fiction, remember; we can’t call it by the name it has in the real world, “the cloud”), including everything they see and hear. The police – in the person of detective Clive Owen – have access to these records. So when a crime is committed, they just scroll back through the suspect’s record so they can see exactly what happened. But then a man is murdered, and his murderer remains invisible, because the murderer hacked the Ether so the victim sees his death through the murderer’s eyes. Owen discovers there are hackers who can make people’s records in the Ether disappear. He tracks one down – Chloe Sevigny – who apparently has no record of her own. It’s patently obvious she’s not the murderer, even though she’s linked to all the victims, because the film spends so much energy making every clue point her way. With the end result that the real identity of the killer falls completely flat when it’s revealed. Niccol also seems to think the future will be Brutalist. I’m a huge fan of Brutalist architecture, but it hasn’t signified the future since the 1970s. Putting up great slabs of concrete is time-consuming and expensive; the future will be steel frames and gypsum walls, cheap and easy to put up by immigrant labour– oh wait, we won’t have immigrant labour in the UK anymore, because it will take years to get a visa and three months to get through immigration control. Cheap and easy to put up by indentured local labour, then; because what else are you going to do when the welfare state has been dismantled… Anyway, Anon… Not a bad film. The central mystery was badly-handled, and the premise is not as original or shocking as it thinks it is, but the film did look very pretty.

Lightning Bolt, Antonio Margheriti (1966, Itay). Back in the 1960s, Italy and Spain collaborated on a bunch of cheap thrillers, often with cheap US stars thrown in as a draw. While some cheap Italian films of the period, gialli or otherwise – like Danger: Diabolik or Footprints on the Moon – have transcended their origins, it doesn’t seem like any of these Spanish-Italian co-productions did. Lightning Bolt, starring Anthony Eisley, star of US TV series Hawaiian Eye (1959 – 1963), as Harry Sennet, a pretty obvious take-off of James Bond. The plot is even a rip-off of Dr No. Having said that, Lightning Bolt uses real stock footage of Nasa launches, and does a much better job in that respect than Dr No. Anyway, Nasa’s last six launches have all failed, with the rockets not making much more than a couple of thousand feet from the launch pad. So Eisley, an agent for the Federal Security Investigation Commission, poses as a playboy while investigating the Florida keys just down-range of Nasa for likely causes. His boss is female… and it doesn’t help when she’s introduced as “Agent 36-22-36”. And her treatment is pretty standard for the treatment of women in this film. It’s not that the film makes 007 look feminist, which Trump certainly does, but it’s clearly closer to unreconstructed sexist pig than Bond. Anyway, it’s all because of a beer mogul who has a secret base at the bottom of the sea, and who plans to launch a laser cannon to the Moon which he can then use to blackmail the nations of Earth into ceding him control. FSIC’s playboy agent foils his plot. Of course. There’s a lot of noir-ish voiceover in this film, which is definitely not a characteristic of the genre; and I’m not really sure it works. I recently saw someone on FB post a list of “favourite spy parody films” and they had Derek Flint in their No. 1 spot. I think I’d nominate Matt Helm (but Flint would make my No. 2). Harry Sennet, however, is no spoof, even if at times he seems like one. A film for fans of spaghetti spy-fi only, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2018, #24

After the last post’s diversity, it’s swung the opposite way here, with a mostly Anglophone half dozen films…

Supersonic Saucer, Kadoyng, The Glitterball, Guy Fergusson, Ian Shand, Harley Cokeliss (1956, 1972, 1977, UK). These three films were packaged as “Outer Space”, which is a  bit of a phiz as they all take place on Earth. In the south of England, in fact. In the first, an inhabitant of Venus, all of whom can transform themselves into flying saucers, is a bit of a late starter, and when he – or perhaps it – finally transforms, he makes his way to Earth, where he is befriended by two girls spending half-term at their school in the care of the headmaster’s know-it-all son. Since said alien has the power to make things vanish and then re-appear, much typical 1950s moralising then ensues, with a raid on the local cake shop reluctantly undone before the pesky kids, and alien/flying saucer, foil a bank robbery by some comedy villains. Very much of its time. Kadoyng, on the other hand, is the name of a comedy alien who lands on Earth and is befriended by a group of kids. He looks like a human, however, except for the stalking growing from the top of his head. So they give him a top hat to hide it. Meanwhile, a bypass is about to be run through the village, and the kids are on the nimby side… and there are a bunch of kids who bully them on the other side. Naturally, the alien helps save the village from the march of progress, through the use of alien, er, advanced science. The Glitterball is is also an alien, which a pair of kids find and, er, befriend. But some others want the alien ball once they realise its powers. And like the other two films on this disc, it’s all about kids standing up for something else, and perhaps some noble cause, as catalysed by the arrival of an alien, human-looking or otherwise. I thought it might be fun watching these CFF films, but I can’t really say that it has been. I doubt I’ll bother with the rest.

Dark Victory, Edmund Goulding (1939, USA). My mother found a box set of four Bette David films in a charity shop and lent it to me after she’d watched them. I’m not a Bette Davis fan – there are other actresses from that period I’d sooner watch. And it turned out I’d seen two of the films in the box set before – Now, Voyager and The Letter (see here) – but I’m happy to rewatch classic Hollywood films, so no bother. Dark Victory is a film adaptation of a well-known play, in which Davis’s role is that of a young socialite with bad habits who learns she has a brain tumour, marries her doctor, who then tells her that her condition is operable, which it is not. Despite being a play before it was a film this still comes across as a Bette Davis star vehicle – although, to be honest, pretty much every Bette Davis film does. Humphrey Bogart plays a minor role as an Irish horse trainer, but the film is all about Davis and her illness-induced deterioration. Meh.

Jubilee, Derek Jarman (1978, UK). A new box set of Derek Jarman films on Blu-ray? I’ll have me a copy of that… No, wait. I’ve seen a few of his films over the years, but I’d hardly call myself a fan. I never quite plugged into his slightly amateurish aesthetic, and his choice of subjects was not one designed to appeal to me… But then I watched his Wittgenstein earlier this year (see here) and was really quite impressed. Clearly, I had misjudged Jarman. And since this new box set included Jubilee, perhaps his most famous film, and one I’d never actually seen, then maybe it was worth a punt…  So I bought it. And a very nice object it is too. The BFI have done him proud. Obvs, the first film I chose to watch from it was Jubilee. And it was not at all like I had imagined. I had thought it was some punk aesthetic celebration of the time, starring some well-known names from the scene and some of its defining music. Except, it wasn’t. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic UK after the death of Queen Elizabeth II (although even back in 1978 that was an unlikely outcome for her death). Queen Elizabeth I is transported forward in time to the 1970s by John Dee (played by Richard O’Brien. With hair! And a beard!), and then it’s sort of her hanging around with a bunch of punk misfits. The music is not at all punk, and surprisingly good. Some of the cast aren’t great, but the whole thing hangs together much more effectively than I’d expected. I thought it pretty good. And I’m glad I bought the box set.

Herostratus, Don Levy (1967, UK). I stumbled across this on the website of a certain online retailer whose owner is so desperate to spend his fortune he’s throwing it at a private space programme but apparently won’t even considered giving his employees a living wage. Anyway, I spotted it in my recommendations, before they went and changed how that works so now it’s next to sodding useless, and I bunged it onto an order. I suppose I was expecting something either like Penda’s Fen (see here) or Privilege (see here). What it is, is like neither. If anything, it reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (see here). A young man, sick of the world and its failure to cater to his sensibilities, decides to commit suicide, and tries to turn it into a media event. He approaches an advertising mogul, and they try to make a media event out of it all. Every so often, the film flashes up images of a woman in black, or a woman in a red. There’s also a scene where a young Helen Mirren, in bustier and fishnets, performs an erotic dance. Herostratus is very much a film of its time. I think it’s trying to make a similar point to Watkins’s Privilege, but it’s not as biting, or as entertaining, a satire as that one is. But I did enjoy it more than Performance.

Red Sparrow, Francis Lawrence (2018, USA). It’s 2018, FFS, should we still be making movies in which Russians are played by Anglophones sporting silly accents? (Although not entirely, as one of the Russians is played by a Belgian, and another is Dutch.) And the entire plot relies on copying data on 3.5″ floppy disks. In 2018. Good luck on finding a computer with a floppy disk drive, even in Russia. Jennifer Lawrence, who may be a very good actress but seems to have the usual Hollywood problem of being unable to pick good projects, plays a ballerina who is injured onstage and then blackmailed by her uncle into becoming a sex operative, or “sparrow”, for the KGB, er, FSB. This is a film that wants its Cold War and is determined to ignore the last thirty years of actual history to get it. After demonstrating she is not going to obey the rules at sparrow school, the viewer is repeatedly told she is something special, not that this is especially evident onscreen. She’s sent on a mission to Budapest to seduce a CIA agent. Because he runs a mole in the KGB, er, FSB, and naturally they want to know who it is. She goes about it in her own way, which means blackmailing anyone who thinks she’s behaving like a double agent for the CIA. There really is nothing good to say about this film. It feels like it’s set 30 years ago and not in the present day. Jennifer Lawrence is a complete blank. And the plot doesn’t even make sense as a spy story plot. One to avoid.

Winter of Discontent, Ibrahim El Batout (2012, Egypt). This is a dramatisation of events during Arab Spring, featuring actors playing real people. One of the major characters is the female anchor of a current affairs show, who quits after being bollocked for asking dumb questions on air and decides to investigate the events ongoing in Tahrir Square for herself. The film shows both sides – and not just those fighting the authorities, but also those who are trying to shut down the insurrection. And even those who are caught up in it by accident. One such man was arrested by the secret police simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then beaten and tortured as a “rebel” despite his protestations of innocence. Arab regimes have been, traditionally, autocratic, and even democratic Arab nations have often devolved into autocracy. The West is happy to support such regimes, either to protect strategic resources – look up the history of BP, if you don’t believe me – or to keep active a ready market for armaments exports. And dropping bombs on such nations will not “fix” them. And yet, in most cases, these authoritarian regimes are so well-entrenched that not even an Arab Spring can unseat them, especially not when they’re being propped up by the West. Let’s not forget that Gaddafi may have been Public Enemy No. 1 but he was left in power for precisely as long as the West was happy to let him be in power. And now that’s he gone, Libya is a disaster area. And for all that we boast of our freedoms, they’re being eroded daily – only this month, voters were turned away from polling stations because they did not have ID for the first time in British history. Demanding ID to vote is not a solution to electoral fraud because it’s a trivial problem – in 2017, there were 28 allegations from 45 million votes, and only one conviction. It’s a way to disenfranchise people. And if the government is going to tackler electoral fraud, they would do well to address the illegal campaign spending perpetrated by their own party in the last general election… None of which is especially relevant to Winter of Discontent, which provides a good overview of the events of the January 25 Revolution of 2011 but does very little reaffirm a person’s faith in humanity…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907


1 Comment

Moving pictures 2018, #8

A nice geographic spread of films, which is the sort of viewing I’d like to be normal for me.

Salyut-7, Klim Shipenko (2017, Russia). At the time I watched this, Salyut-7 had not been released on sell-through and was only available for streaming – I watched it on Amazon Prime, inexplicably as a three-episode series: they split the feature film in two, and then added a making of featurette as a “third episode”. Which is bonkers. Happily, Salyut-7 – stupidly marketed as “the Soviet ‘Apollo 13′” – is excellent. The previous mission to Salyut – the USSR’s space station during the 1980s – had had a few problems, but when the space station completely shut down after its solar panels were hit by micrometeoroids, and resisted efforts to be restarted from the ground, the only solution was to send up a pair of cosmonauts to fix it. The mission is generally considered one of the toughtest ever attempted – although, of course, the West knew nothing of it publicly until after glasnost. In some respects, Salyut-7 is clearly a Russian attempt to outdo Gravity – at which it happily succeeds. The bulk of the action is set aboard Salyut 7, and the presentation of micro-gravity is just as convincing, if not more so, than in Gravity. True, there’s not much in the way of drama – I mean, even though the mission’s details were kept from the public, the death of the cosmonauts could never have been covered up. So it’s obvious they succeeded – well, to anyone who knows anything about the Space Race. But it was far from easy, and the film makes a meal of the difficulty. But it is, above all, really convincing in its presentation of microgravity and the hardware involved, Soyuz and Salyut. Much as I’m fascinated by the Apollo programme, I do find the Soyuz spacecraft an interesting piece of hardware, and it was good to see it in detail on the big screen (so to speak). If Salyut-7 set out to beat Gravity at its own game, then it succeeded admirably: the effects were as good, if not better; but it was also a true story. I can’t wait for it to be released on Blu-ray. Recommended.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). Do I classify this is a documentary or an animated film, because, well, it’s both. And it’s not like there are that many animated documentaries they can form a genre of their own. Folman served in the Israeli Defense Force (hah) during the invasion of Lebanon, but it’s not until he’s contacted by a friend from those days that he realises his own memories of his army service are suspiciously free of trauma. So he investigates, and discovers that he was present during a massacre of Lebanese prisoners of war by Falangists but had wiped it from his memory. The film implies the IDF was not complicit in the massacre but allowed it to happen – not because it had been unaware of what might occur, but because the consequences suited them. Years later, Folman has to make sense of memories he has suppressed for nearly thirty years. He travels to the Netherlands to talk to another survivor from his tank squadron, who has made a comfortable living from selling falafel. His friend too has been happy to forget what occurred during the war, although he has not actually blocked the memories. As Folman talks to people who were involved in the circumstances which led to the massacre, so he starts to remember himself what happened. Because the film is animated – it’s a sort of Rotascoped animation, unique to Waltz with Bashir – so it’s easy to tell the flashbacks and present day narratives apart. The film pulls no punches, it depicts the IDF conscripts as ill-trained and clueless, happier having barbecues on the beach than fighting… and completely unprepared for the brutality they encounter. This is not news… but it was suppressed by the Israeli authorities. Not that any other country would not have done the same. All nations did it repeatedly during WWII. The UK and US continues to do it in regard to the Middle East. I remember reading once about a first-hand account by an Israeli soldier in Lebanon and because he described soldiers stealing cars it was not published in Western newspapers as that would undermine the the reputation of Israel. Wars happen; but wars would not continue without a continual supply of weapons… and the same nations who publicly condemn those wars are happy to sell weapons to the combatants. To my mind, that makes them war criminals. They need to be prosecuted. And yes, if that means people like Folman are tried for war crimes – because they were certainly involved in them, whether they remember it or not – then so be it. I would hope the sentencing would reflect their level of involvement and culpability. That’s the proper way to do it.

Wittgenstein, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I have, over the years, watched several of Jarman’s films, and have often wondered why his reputation was so high in certain circles. I remember thinking Caravaggio was quite good, but The Tempest felt a bit amateur-ish, and Blue was pretty much unwatchable. So I’m not sure what prompted me to put Wittgenstein on my rental list – perhaps a desire to give Jarman a more serious look? If so, I picked a good one for it. Because I actually thought Wittgenstein pretty good. The entire film is filmed against a black background. It’s not black box theatre staging because it doesn’t even make an effort to suggest scenery. It’s actors in front of a black screen. And it works really well. Wittgenstein is shown as a young boy and as a young man, played by two different actors. I know very little about philosophy, I never studied it at school and certainly not at university. And, to be honest, I’ve never felt inspired to explore the subject in the decades since I left full-time education. But Jarman’s Wittgenstein had some choice dialogue on philosophy, like “philosophy is just a by-product of misunderstanding language” and “Professor Wittgenstein, I recommend you read more Hegel”. The script was actually written by Terry Eagleton, although Jarman apparently heavily rewrote it. I’m not especially interested in how films are made, at least not as much as I’m interested in the final product. Sometimes, the genesis of a film can be as interesting as the film itself, but in most cases… Movie-making is a collaborative venture in which various creative types apply their vision to the project… and it’s a toss-up as to which vision finally makes it to the released product. At least with auteur cinema you can be fairly sure it’s the director’s vision. But in Wittgenstein alone, there’s that gap between script and film, between what Eagleton wrote and what Jarman has his cast say. As a film, I liked Wittgenstein – I found it informative and enjoyable. The black background totally worked. If I had wondered about Jarman’s reputation before seeing it, the film at least suggested he deserved his reputation. I plan to watch more Jarman, although I suspect I may have seen the best… (Gah, I now see the BFI are releasing a limited edition box set of his first six films on Blu-ray next month.)

Sumurun, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). Described as an “Oriental pantomime in six acts”, and also known as One Arabian Night, Sumurun is actually based on a play by Friedrich Freksa (do they have pantomimes in Germany?). A travelling group of performers arrive at an unnamed city. A slave trader wants to sell the troupe’s dancer to the sheikh for his harem. Meanwhile, the sheikh’s favourite from his harem, Sumurun, has fallen in love with a cloth merchant. The sheikh wants the dancer, Sumurun wants the cloth merchant. And then it turns out the dancer falls in love with the sheikh’s son. It’s all very tangled and frenetic and, er, tinted. I’ve no idea why they tinted early films. It doesn’t seem to add anything to the experience. Nor does there seem to be any reason for the tint – sometimes it’s blue, sometimes yellow, sometimes red… Sumurun was apparently filmed entirely in Berlin, using sets, which makes the external shots of the city an impressive achievement – and the desert even more so. Pola Negri is good as the dancer, and Paul Wegener makes a menacing sheikh, but the rest of the cast gurn at the camera like, er, championship gurners. Lubitsch himself, who plays the hunchbacked member of the troupe, is one of the worst. He was apparently so disappointed by his performance he swore never to act again. I’ve now seen four of the six films in this box set, and I must admit the first two were easily the best. Still, there are two films to go – Anna Boleyn and Die Bergkatze– so we shall see…

Mammon (2014, Norway). My mother, who is a big Nordic Noir fan, lent me this. She’d found it in a charity shop. It’s one of those television series where you’re not sure where it’s going for much of its length, which can be an advantage, inasmuch as it promises much. But, of course, it has to make good on that mystery in the finale. And Mammon didn’t quite pull that off. A newspaper publishes allegations of fiscal malfeasance at an investment company, and the CFO resigns under a cloud. It turns out he’s the brother of the journalist who broke the story. A few days later, the CFO commits suicide. The narrative jumps ahead five years. The journalist has dug deeper, with the help of a police officer from the financial crimes unit (they were together for a while during those five years but it’s over now). Their research leads them to a conspiracy centred around a class at a prestigious business school in Bergen twenty years earlier. Then two more important businessmen commit suicide when their finances are questioned… It’s all to do with that group at the business school – and the journalist’s brother was the leader – who decided to use insider trading to create fortunes and so beat the old boy network. And when one of their number decided to grass them up, they murdered him by tying him to a chair and setting fire to his house, also killing the man’s young son in the process… And so creating the creating the defining philosophy of the group – that they would not, like Abraham, sacrifice their sons but would sooner commit suicide. Helping the journalist is a billionaire who gained his wealth suspiciously, and he’s trailed several times before the viewer as a possible villain. But. And it’s why Mammon ultimately dissatisfied – there’s a good conspiracy at the heart of the story, and an excellent mystery… but it over-eggs the cake. We never learn the source of the billionaire’s fortune, for example – and then turns implausibly violent in the final episodes, with men in black SUVs murdering people with impunity. For four of its six episodes, Mammon was good telly. Then it threw it away. There is a second series, broadcast in 2016, and the show has been renewed for a third series.

The Pirogue, Moussa Touré (2012, Senegal). The title refers to a type of open boat used by the Senagalese to travel up the west coast of Africa to land illegally in Spain, and so make a better life for themselves in Europe. Some are realistic about their chances, some imagine Europe as a land of gold. The captain of the pirogue knows he is responsible for all those on the boat – about thirty people all told. He had initially refused the job, but he needed the money. At first, all goes well during the journey. They come across another pirogue whose engines (main and spare) have both failed, but decide they cannot stop to render assistance without jeopardising their own survival. But then there’s a big storm, and one of the men is swept into the sea. Unfortunately, he had the GPS on him. So they continue on, navigating by blind reckoning… but they’re as likely to be heading for Brazil as they are Spain. Fortunately, they’re picked up by the Spanish coast guard a day or so after their water runs out. After a couple of weeks in a camp in Spain, they’re repatriated to Senegal, none the worse for their ordeal. Except for the two who died, that is. The bulk of the film takes place in the boat, and it does an excellent job of setting out the characters, their reasons for being in the pirogue and their hopes for the future. There’s a tribal element to it, with the passengers coming from two tribes, one of which seems predominantly muslim, but it doesn’t generate conflict. There’s also a stowaway, a young woman, who causes some tension when she’s discovered – there is only so much food and water, after all. For all that The Pirogue is set on a boat in the open sea, it’s convincingly done. And the storm is especially convincing. I’m surprised this film isn’t better know, it’s a solid piece of drama and it is hugely relevant as an antidote to the racist scaremongering over immigration and refugees put out by the right. (A country without immigrants is a stagnant country. Easiest way to stop the refugee problem? Stop bombing the shit out of their homes. It’s very simple. Refutations that “it’s complex” are just excuses to not do anything.) Anyway, The Pirogue is very good, and there are two more films on this Great African Films Volume 4 DVD. It’s a shame the series is so hard to find, as it contains some excellent films (only one, Daratt, from Chad, was independently released on DVD in the UK). More films like this should be released in the UK.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895