It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


1 Comment

Moving pictures 2017, #29

Another mixed bag, including some films I didn’t expect to like but did, and some I expected to like but didn’t…

The Wedding, Andrzej Wajda (1972, Poland). I find Wajda a bit and miss, to be honest. I really like both Man of Marble and Man of Iron, but didn’t take to Ashes and Diamonds. Two of those films are in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets, along with Innocent Sorcerors, Promised Land and… The Wedding. That’s quite a showing, out of twenty-four films. I suspect some of Wajda’s films require several watchings, and The Wedding is one of them. As the title, er, informs, it’s set at a wedding, in 1900 in Kraków, between a middle-class poet and his peasant fiancée. The film is apparently based on a play by Stanisław Wyspiański, and is concerned chiefly with the history of Poland, particularly how it relates to class. The play is apparently held in high regard – and Wajda has also directed the play, it seems – but some of the reviews I’ve seen online of Wajda’s film are less complimentary – although the non-Polish reviews seem uniformly approving. The play has rhyming dialogue, but Wajda dispenses with it for the film, although many lines spoken by the cast use a lot of poetic imagery. As everyone at the wedding gets more pissed, so they start to see apparitions which represent people and incidents from Polish history. In 1900, Poland didn’t exist as a nation, as it was occupied by Russia, Austria and Prussia, and it would not regain its independence until The Treaty of Versailles in 1918. The Wedding takes place at a time when an uprising might have happened – The Wedding partly symbolises the inability of the intelligentsia and peasants to work together. The film has an externsive cast, and crams a lot into its 106 minutes. It doesn’t feel at all stagey, chiefly because Wajda films several important scenes outdoors (I don’t know how the play handles them). But even the interior scenes feel very cinematographic, as Wajda uses close-ups, zoom shots and pull back shots. The Wedding was definitely a film that improved on a second viewing. I’ll probably have to watch it again sometime.

The Eye of Silence, Emmanuel Sapolsky (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime, and the synopsis sounded reasonably interesting so I sat down to watch it. Amèlie is a young Chinese woman in Beijing, who enjoys going out clubbing with her friend Coco. They’re both beautiful and looking for a good time. Coco already has a boyfriend, a young and rich property developer. Amèlie makes her living pretending to be French – she lived in France and speaks the language – for a friend who scams companies looking for overseas investment. Amèlie also has extremely sensitive vision and can see in the dark – but she has to wear sunglasses in the light. At a party thrown by Coco’s boyfriend, Coco goes into a diabetic coma and then dies while being raped by the boyfriend and his friends. Even though the lights are out, Amèlie witnesses this, but she doesn’t know what to do. Sapolsky is, I think, a French director, and Xin Wang, the actress who plays Amèlie, has appeared in a couple of his projects – including Ex-Model a series of webisodes about a Chinese fashion model in Paris who discovers she is too old (at thirty) to get more work. They’re also available on Amazon Prime and are quite amusing. Xin Wang is a face to watch, and while the seeing-in-the-dark thing is an important plot-point – it makes her witness to the crime without the perpetrators realising it, and leads to a somewhat bathetic ending – it does feel a bit unnecessary. The Eye of Silence is clearly a star vehicle for Xin Wang, but she’s very good so that’s no problem. Worth watching.

Songs from the Second Floor, Roy Andersson (2000, Sweden). The night before I flew out to Sweden for a convention, I decided to watch something Swedish. As you do. And I found this film on Amazon Prime, which seemed to have added a number of good films in the week or two prior (including the one above). However, I’m not sure Songs from the Second Floor was a good choice of film to put me in a Swedish frame of mind as it was fucking weird as shit. It’s a series of vignettes, all of which are completely depressing, are played totally deadpan, and in which the cast wear white face make-up that makes them look like cadavers. It makes Finnish films look like the Marx Brothers. The vignettes sort of interlock, inasmuch as characters move through them while also having their own stories. In one, a man who has just been fired, clings to the leg of his boss, and is dragged begging for a second chance along the corridor. In another, a man on a subway train carries a bag full of burnt paper. A naval officer gets into a taxi which is stuck in traffic, even though he is late for an important funeral. The film has a very washed-out look, which does everyone the appearance of warmed-over corpses, but given that it’s a mordant commentary on modern life, it’s quite effective. It presents a different character of black humour to that of films from other nations I’ve seen, more absurd and surreal, I think, than, say, Finnish black-comedies. And less cataclysmic than Polish ones. I’m not sure I liked it, but I think I’ll probably have a go at the two “sequels”, You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Performance*, Nicolas Roeg (1970, UK). I think I had the wrong idea about this film in my head prior to watching it. Because when it opened as a mockney gangaster flick, with James Fox as a dapper but psycho enforcer for a London gang boss, I wondered if I were watching the right movie. But after Fox pisses off his boss and is forced to go on the run, he ends up hiding out in the house of retired rock star Turner (played by Jagger), and the film I’d been expecting began to manifest. But there was little in it, I thought, to justify a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. As an ultra-violent film with flashes of surrealism, it predated Pete Travis’s Dredd by several decades, but didn’t seem to add anything to either ultra-violent films of its time or surrealist movies. But then the film reached ‘Memo from Turner’, almost a promo video, performed by Jagger, and the whole film went up a level. That happens sometimes: a film is mostly meh, and then something happens to cause you re-appraise what you’ve just watched. Performance still feels like a so-so 1970s British gangster film, and I couldn’t decide if Jagger was actually acting or not (as in, he wasn’t that bad, and he’s usually a terrible actor), but the ‘Memo from Turner’ sequence was really good, and if only for that I think better of this film than I otherwise would.

The Green Ray, Éric Rohmer (1986, France). Among the people I know who actually know who Rohmer is – and it’s a small number of people – The Green Ray is generally proffered as Rohmer’s best film. So I was surprised to find it so disappointing. Rohmer’s films are very talky, but this one seemed even more so than others I remembered. Perhaps I expected too much of it. But his films also tackle thorny moral situations and problems, and YMMV almost certainly given those subjects. In The Green Ray, a young woman’s relationship has just ended, and her holidays planned are torpedoed when her travelling companion pulls out. She joins a beach party, but she’s the only single person there and doesn’t fit in (I know that feeling). She bounces around Europe, looking for a companion but unwilling to engage in the sort of mindless mating games people use when looking for one-night stands (I know that feeling too). You’d think, with Rohmer tackling a situation with which I can sympathise, I’d like The Green Ray more than I did. But Delphine, the main character, felt a little too flat to be sympathetic, and perhaps the over-reliance on dialogue told against the film. Also, when I think of the Rohmer films I like – Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach – the emotional problem which forms the core of the film feels stronger and a more powerful engine for the plot. The Green Ray – a reference to both Verne’s novel of the same name, and the near-mythical green flash sometimes seen at sunset – feels at times as unfocused as Delphine’s holiday plans. I still like Rohmer’s films, and am happy to work my way through his oeuvre, and I suspect The Green Ray is going withstand a rewatch much better than some of his other films… One of these days I’ll have to see if I can pick up a DVD collection of his movies; there are several available.

The Holy Mountain, Arnold Fanck (1926, Germany). I had thought Leni Reifenstahl – of Triumph of the Will fame – had directed this, but it turns out she was its star, not its director. She plays a dancer who falls in love with a mountaineer, but then he gets jealous when she gives one of her scarves to one of his friends, leading the friend to believe she loves him and the mountaineer to think she has betrayed him. The film makes much of the fact its mountaineering scenes were actually filmed in the mountains and not faked up in a studio, and, while there are plenty that were certainly filmed on location, a pivotal scene in which the mountaineer has to hold his friend all night after he’d fallen off a cliff does look a bit like it was done in a studio. About all I can remember from the film is the dancing scenes (bad) and the climbing scenes (good). If the film was sold on its location shooting, it at least did a good job on it. The story – boy meets, girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again after much difficulty – may not have been all that original, and Reifenstahl as an actress has nothing like Louise Brooks’s on-screen charisma, and the film does not go somewhat off-piste towards the end (leading to the film’s title)… but I did enjoy it. And while silent films require a different viewing protocol to “talkies”, I’ve seen aneough them now to appreciate how it’s done. And some silent films, in fact, I’ve thought absolutely blinding. Worth seeing, but probably not worth a rewatch.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 866


2 Comments

Moving pictures 2017, #20

Another good mix of films, and no Hollywood shitbusters to spoil it either.

Pauline at the Beach, Éric Rohmer (1983, France). I think the first Rohmer I ever watched was Triple Agent, and I forget why I’d added it to my rental list. But as I learnt more about his career, so I wanted to watch more of his films. I’ve been steadily working my way through them and have seen a dozen to date – rentals… although I’ve been tempted on occasion to pick up a box set of his various series… but never quite tempted enough. Rohmer’s shtick is to present moral dilemmas as well-observed drama, and then let the viewer make their own call on what went down. It’s a curiously cowardly way of presenting a story, as if Rohmer doesn’t have the courage to comment on the situations he dramatises. But I don’t think that’s actually the case – indeed, it takes courage to present a scenario that is not plainly black or white. Pauline at the Beach, the third of Rohmer’s “Comedies & Proverbs” sextet, is a good example, although I’ve no idea what proverb it’s intended to illustrate. The titular character, a young teenager, is staying with an older cousin at a beach resort. She is present as her cousin bumps into a male friend from a previous summer, and a repeat holiday romance is mooted… but the cousin instead ends up sleeping with an older man who befriends them. Meanwhile, Pauline finds a boyfriend of her own. But one day, while the cousin has had to return to Paris on business, the older man beds a young woman who sells sweets on the beach; and when the cousin returns unexpectedly early, he makes out it was Pauline’s boyfriend who was shagging the sweet-seller. So Pauline falls out with her boyfriend. Later, she learns the truth, but her cousin refuses to believe it, preferring to accept her lover’s version of events. It’s a story that’s told in a deceptively simple way. It’s likely the most emblematic of Rohmer’s oeuvre I’ve seen. As in all his films, the direction is straightforward but effective, but it’s the cast who shine. I plan to eventually work my way through all of Rohmer’s films, and Pauline at the Beach only encouraged me to do so.

Veer Zaara, Yash Chopra (2004, India). To be honest, I’m starting to wonder why Bollywood films are not a routine part of most people’s film-viewing. Especially Brits. Our links with the country go back to Elizabethan times, when we first started exploiting it… and we’ve never really stopped. Exploiting it, that is. But the only people with whom I have conversations about Bollywood films are Indians (although pretty much all of them seem unaware of Bengal’s “parallel cinema”, which I personally have much more time for…). Veer Zaara was a Bollywood film I’d stuck on my rental list because I’d seen it on another list somewhere and… it was fun. It rang a few changes on the story – this time, it was: boy meets girl, boy is imprisoned on trumped-up charge for 22 years, human rights lawyer brings boy and girl back together again… So, not your average rom com plot. A young Pakistani woman takes her grandmother’s ashes back to India to scatter them in the village of her birth, but is involved in a bus accident en route… where she is resuced by an Indian air force helicopter pilot. They fall in love. He goes back with her to Pakistan to meet her family. But her marriage has already been arranged, and her impending husband has powerful contacts in the Paskistani establishment. He arranges for the Indian pilot to be arrested as a spy… Twenty-two years later, a human rights lawyer takes on the pilot’s case. Since he had originally refused to name the woman he loves back then, and still refuses to do so, it makes things difficult. But the lawyer figures it out, and discovers the woman called off the wedding on being told the pilot was dead, and has since devoted her life to running an orphange in his home village back in India. Obviously, this is not the most cheerful of stories, but this is Bollywood so there is singing and dancing. More than that, Veer Zaara is a very nice-looking film, with some excellent, if somewhat enhanced, photography. The plot is pure cheese from start to finish, but that’s hardly unexpected. I can see why it’s counted a classic Bollywood movie. Worth seeing.

The Night of the Shooting Stars*, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani (1982, Italy). So confusing. Although the only UK DVD art I could find calls this The Night of San Lorenzo, it’s best known as The Night of the Shooting Stars, except when it’s known as just Night of the Shooting Stars. And it’s under that last title that it’s mentioned on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s because it’s on the list that I watched it. And… In WWII, a village in Italy is on the retreating Germans’ route, and since they have stated they will destroy everything, the villagers hide in the church. Except some don’t. Instead, they go looking for the liberating US army… I’m not entirely sure what The Night of the Shooting Stars was intended to convey. Bertolucci’s 1900 did a better job of showing the war’s impact on Italian society, Pasolini’s Sálo did a better job of expressing the Germans’ impact on Italian society, and there are no end of war films which show how it all happened, including really bad ones starring Rock Hudson in a 1970s haircut… Taken on its own, The Night of the Shooting Stars is a good film and perfectly watchable. I couldn’t get invested in it, possibly because it seemed to cover well-trod ground – it was not Neorealist, but it was about WWII, for example – and nothing in it seemed to stand out especially. There is a good scene in which one of the characters is killed by a mythical figure, but it was too few and too little to rescue the film. I can understand why some people rate it highly, but for me it didn’t quite make the grade to justify its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d sooner put another Fellini in its place.

Hélas pour moi, Jean-Luc Godard (1993, France). The more Godard I see, the more Godard I want to own. Truffaut was, I think, a better director, but Godard was the better film-maker. If that makes sense. I mean, I love both Fahrenheit 451 and Mississippi Mermaid, both of which use the language of commercial cinema to present non-commercial films (and neither of which are in collections of his work; bloody typical). And then there’s Tirez le pianiste, which is likely the most definitively New Wave of all the New Wave films… And those are just Truffaut’s films. (Without even mentioning the excellent interview he did with Hitchcock, a director I greatly admire.) But then you look at Godard’s oeuvre and, quite frankly, it’s a mess… Of his films I’ve seen, some are works of genius – Le mépris, 2 or 3 things I know About Her – while others push the boundaries of cinema in interesting new directions – Week End, Détective, Hélas pour moi, Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language… But he could be enormously self-indulgent – sometimes it worked, as in Film Socialisme – but other times he seemed to let his stars get in the way of his film: both 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in USA were filmed at the same time (one in the morning, the other in the afternoon), yet I find the former much more successful than the latter. Sadly, as is always the case, little of Godard’s oeuvre is available on DVD in the UK. Hélas pour moi is late Godard, like Film Socialisme, and so is about cinema as much as it is about its story. Which, to be honest, I have no clue what it was. Gerard Depardieu and Laurence Masliah play a married couple, who are involved in some sort of incident in a Swiss village, but other than that, no idea… And yet, I enjoyed this film. It was clearly meta-cinema, something Godard has played with to varying degrees,  but not only was Godard playing with the conventions of cinema but also with the narrative conventions of the story he was telling. I want to watch this again… The only problem is finding a Godard box set that has more films I don’t own than ones I do own… and I don’t own that many. His entire oeuvre should be available, to be honest. Bfi, do your thing, please.

Walkover, Jerzy Skolimowski (1965, Poland). The Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets have proven somewhat variable. Some of the films are bona fide classics, and I’m hugely glad I now own decent copies of them. Others I wouldn’t describe as classics but I’m glad I have well-restored copies to rewatch. Some, however, have proven unremarkable and you have to wonder why they were selected for inclusion. Walkover is… a borderline case. It’s a solid drama of the type the Polish do so well, told against a backdrop of socialist industry – another thing the Poles were very good at: presenting socialism in a positive light while also highlighting its failings… The USSR’s version of socialism, that is of course. An unreasoning fear of communism can be blamed for a huge number of really bad, and very damaging, political decisions made between 1950 and 1990… although JFK’s decision to put a human being on the moon by 1969 was not obviously not one of them. Ahem. In Walkover, a young man joins the staff of an industrial plant. and finds himself dragged back into boxing, a sport at which he excelled but which he no longer participates, and this is contrasted with the rise of a female engineer within the plant’s staff. It’s… solid drama. The shiftlessness of the boxer’s life, a result of his academic failures, is contrasted with that of the female engineer. This is socialist propaganda as feature film, and I see nothing wrong with it as it takes the facts of a socialist society and sets a drama in them, unlike Hollywood, which continues to push the American Dream like it weas real thing and actually acheivable. FFS.

Morgan, Luke Scott (2016, UK). I saw mention of this somewhere and stuck it on my rental list, and lo, it arrived, so I watched it one weekend with a bottle of wine at hand. Dynastic film-making at its, er, best: Luke is the son of Ridley. The title refers to a genetically-engineered person – played by a woman but implied to be neuter – who had viciously attacked one of her handlers. A risk assessment consultant is brought in to decide if the project should be canned. There are many references to an earlier project in Stockholm, which resulted in the deaths of several researchers. Morgan tries to keep its cards close to its chest, but the hand it holds is so bloody obvious the effort is totally wasted. Morgan is a genetically-engineered soldier. They built a sociopath and seem surprised when it acts like one. The consultant brought in proves to have expert unarmed combat skills… because it too is a genetically-engineered soldier. That’s like the most obvious reveal ever in sf film. Morgan looks good, and its cast do quite well with a script that clearly recognises it’s one long string of clichés and tries to disguise what it’s actually about. Like Ex Machina, Morgan is Hollywood’s idea of a clever treatment of a difficult sf topic, in which nice visuals can’t hide an entirely trope-bound exploration that illustrates nothing. I seriously do not understand the point in doing that.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 858


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2016, #8

Almost up to date now – so it’ll back to the usual, somewhat irregular, schedule for these Moving picture posts after this one. A bit of a mixed bag this time – three from the US, two from France, and one from Spain (that isn’t actually Spanish); mostly from the 1980s; and mostly drama.

demyParking, Jacques Demy (1985, France). I’m really not sure what to make of this one. It’s like a cross between Cocteau’s Orphée and Xanadu, although without being anywhere near as awful as the latter. It’s actually a retelling, more or less, of Orphée – and Jean Marais, who played the title role in Cocteau’s film, plays Hades in this – but rather than a beatnik poet, Orpheus is a rockstar. Who wears a white jumpsuit and a red headband. And his music is awful – bland, insipid elevator rock, the sort of music Kenny G would sing if he’d been a singer. While rehearsing on stage, Orpheus is electrocuted. But when he gets to the afterlife, Hades can find no record indicating he was due. So he sends him back. Then a woman he met there, Hades’ personal assistant, Claude Perséphone, contacts Orpheus and offers to represent him. He refuses. But Orpheus’s girlfriend, Eurydice, commits suicide, so he tracks down Perséphone and persuades her to lead him back to the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. The sections set in the afterlife are in black and white, with the occasional red, and the underworld itself resembles either an underground car park or the basement of some huge building. Those scenes are reasonably effective, although they’re not a patch on Orphée‘s, but the movie is completely hamstrung by Orpheus’s music and the baffling success he has apparently had with it. Not one of Demy’s better efforts.

sex_liessex, lies and videotape*, Steven Soderbergh (1989, USA). This film apparently had an enormous impact on the independent film industry in the US, and Soderbergh has always been one of the more interesting US directors… and, to be fair, time has been relatively kind to it… but it’s a type of drama I don’t find particularly interesting. A school friend of a philandering lawyer drops into town to stay for the weekend, but decides to stay on for longer and rents a house. The lawyer’s wife helps him furnish the flat, and thwe two swap personal histories. The friend admits he cannot perform sexually with another person, and has taken to interviewing women on video about their sexual histories. Meanwhile, the lawyer is having an affair with a sister-in-law, and she becomes interested in the friend with the videotapes… and it only really ends badly for the lawyer, who pretty much deserved it. For all its polished dialogue and cast, I found it all a bit dull. But given the film’s impact, I suspect it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can at least now cross it off.

koyaanisqatsiKoyaanisqatsi*, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I knew of this film but had never heard it mentioned all that approvingly, and despite knowing roughly what it was – ie, footage of cities and landscape, with music but no voiceover – and being a fan of James Benning’s films – it had never occurred to me to actually watch Koyaanisqatsi. But it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I bunged it on the rental list, and in the fullness of time it dutifully dropped through the letterbox. And I watched it. And, unsurprisingly, I loved it. Using slow-motion and time-lapse cinematography, Reggio filmed various parts of the US countryside, such as the Canyonlands National Park, as well as various cities – including footage taken on the streets of pedestrians, some of whom actually take notice of the camera. Over it all is a repetitive, but quite appropriate, electronic score by Philip Glass. It’s an easier watch than any of Benning’s films – despite the lack of voice-over, there’s a plain narrative to follow, and the visuals are, of course, quite stunning. The rental service screwed up when sending me this – although I suppose it might have been me – and a Blu-ray arrived rather than a DVD. So I got to see it in even better quality than expected. And it came with the sequel Powaqqatsi – see below.

aviators_wifeThe Aviator’s Wife, Éric Rohmer (1981, France). I do like Rohmer’s films – at least those I’ve seen – albeit some more than others. This one strikes me as… middling Rohmer. A young man is afraid his girlfriend is still seeing her ex-, an airline pilot, and witnesses the pilot leaving her flat. Later, he spots the pilot with another woman, and decides to follow the pair. In a park, he bumps into a fifteen-year-old girl, who quizzes him on his behaviour, and the decides to help him trail the couple. Which is what they do. Around Paris. And the two of them discuss what the couple they are trailing might be up to. It’s a typical dialogue-heavy and leadenly-paced Rohmer film, and despite its plot and cast, it’s unfortunately somewhat light on charm.

falstaff_dvdFalstaff – Chimes at Midnight*, Orson Welles (1966, Spain). Welles has done quite well on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, with half a dozen – that’s around half of his feature film output – on the list. Three of them I’d seen many years before, one I watched and liked so much I bought the Criterion Blu-ray… and now there’s the only Shakespeare film of his that makes the list. And I hadn’t really expected to like it as much as I did. Possibly because I hadn’t been that impressed by The Immortal Story, seen only a few weeks before. And, it has to be said, Shakespeare is hard to do well… and Welles not only plays the title role but created his story, and dialogue, from Falstaff’s appearances in various of Shakespeare’s plays. And yet… it works really well. It doesn’t much feel like a Shakespeare play, despite the Shakespearean dialogue – and the scenes depicting the Battle of Shrewsbury are surprisingly brutal and effective. Welles’s make-up, to be fair, does appear a little over-done, much as it did in The Immortal Story, but it’s only noticeable in some of the scenes. I am not really a fan of Shakespeare’s plays, and watching the BBC adaptations was more prompted more by a desire to see what they were like, and I’ve never really found myself all that enamoured of the various film adaptations I’ve seen – such as those by Baz Luhrmann, Kenneth Branagh, etc – but I’ve seen two since I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and was somewhat surprised to discover they’re both very good – this one and Laurence Oliver’s Henry V. Go figure.

koyaanisqatsiPowaqqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1988, USA). This is the second of three films – the third, Naqoyqatsi, didn’t appear until 2002 – and where the first film’s title translates as “life out of balance”, Powaqqatsi means “life in transition”. It focuses on the developing world, not the US, but follows the same pattern. This time, however, the Philip Glass score is much more intrusive, and seems to work to work against the visuals rather than with them. It don’t think it’s as successful a film as the first, although the cinematography is just as good. But now, I want the entire trilogy – apparently there’s a Criterion Collection Blu-ray trilogy, so that’s gone on the wants list (for some reason the Region B release, by Arrow Academy, only contains the first two films).

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 724


Leave a comment

Moving pictures, #2

A choice selection of yet more films watched so far this year – since my last moving pictures post, of course. I’m keeping the descriptions short, or I’d never get this post done…

Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (UK/USA, 2014)
My first trip to the cinema this year. I remember not liking the book when I read it a decade ago, but I did like this film. The guerilla filming in Glasgow was especially effective, and Scarlett Johansson was excellent in the lead role. Very unsettling – and a lot of it is left up to the viewer to interpret. It probably requires a bit too much work on the part of the viewer to be commercially successful.

Kin-Dza-Dza, Georgiy Daneliya (USSR, 1986)
I found this for sale on a US site that specialises in Russian DVDs (see here), and it was in an edition which included English subtitles. I’d heard much about the film and always wanted to see it, so I bought a copy. It is… bonkers. But also really good. A Russian construction foreman and an Armenian music student are accidentally transported to a planet in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy, and must figure out how to get home.

Eolomea, Herrmann Tschoche (East Germany, 1972)
This was actually a rewatch – it’s one of the films in The Defa Sci-Fi Collection box set I bought a couple of years ago. A number of ships have disappeared on supply missions to space stations. Professor Maria Scholl becomes suspicious – and more so when one of the space stations falls silent. Meanwhile, rumours that a way has been found to reach fabled exoplanet Eolomea have begun to surface. I love the look and feel of this film, with its 1970s future; but it’s also something Hollywood does badly: an intelligent sf film.

Eolomea_004

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Werner Herzog (USA/Germany, 2009)
Sideways look at a police seige of a house where a killer has holed up with hostages. The cops had arrived at the scene to find a murdered woman… and her son then walks across the road and takes the neighbours hostage. Flashbacks show what led to the murder – and it’s the usual off-kilter Herzog stuff. This film was produced by David Lynch, and it does feel very Lynchian, with that sort of fevered supra-reality he used in several of his movies.

Byzantium, Neil Jordan (UK/Ireland, 2012)
Vampires on the run. Gemma Arterton is a young woman in early nineteenth-century England, forced into prostitution by Navy officer Jonny Lee Miller. Years later, dying of TB, she steals Miller’s map to an island that gives a person immortality – by making them a vampire. The all-male vampires aren’t happy but let her go. But when Miller gets his revenge by raping Arterton’s daughter, Aterton takes her to the island… This is all flashbacks as the film’s set in the present day, with Arterton and daughter Saoirse Ronan shacking up in Daniel Mays’ delapidated Byzantium Hotel… and opening a brothel. A polished film, but throughout it felt like one that needn’t have been made.

On the Threshold of Space, Robert D Webb (USA, 1956)
A dramatization of the work of Captain Joseph W Kittinger II, with his parachute jumps from stratospheric balloons as part of Project Manhigh. It’s played completely straight – these were important tests, and though highly dangerous they had to be done. In that respect, it’s not unlike William Holden’s Toward the Unknown (see here). I find all this sort of stuff completely fascinating, and if the film doesn’t actually have much of a story it doesn’t matter to me. Besides, I could watch Virginia Leith in anything.

Riders to the Stars, Richard Carlson (USA, 1954)
One of a trilogy of films about the Office of Scientific Investigation, which tries for scientific accuracy but falls flat on its face. OSI satellites have been blowing up once in orbit and they suspect this is due to cosmic rays. (See what I mean.) So they decide to send up a man in a rocket designed to capture a meteoroid… because meteoroids don’t blow up in space. (Um…). The OSI invites a dozen men to their headquarters, not telling them for what, tests them, and selects three – one of whom happens to be the son of the chief scientist. They build their rockets, launch them, two of them blow up, but the third – the scientist’s son, natch – captures a meteoroid… and they discover that the rock’s secret is its carbon shield! (Sigh.)

Test Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (USSR/Poland, 1978)
An adaptation of a story by Stanisław Lem. Pirx has to evaluate a new type of android and is ordered to fly a mission to Saturn. One of his crew will be an android, but he isn’t told which one. It all looks a bit like a 1970s near-future thriller… and then they climb into a spacecraft and fly across the Solar System. The bit where they fly through a gap in Saturn’s rings, and it looks like an ice chasm, is silly; but the rest of it is good.

Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas (France, 2012)
Intense drama set in and around the student riots of 1968. I’ve liked a number of Assayas’ films but this was surprisingly dull.

It’s a Gift, Norman Z McLeod (USA, 1934)
WC Fields, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one of his films before. This is the one where a relative leaves him some money and he uses it to buy property in California. I was surprised at how nasty his character was, although the slapstick bits were funny – well, as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof…

To the Stars by Hard Ways (Через тернии к звёздам), Richard Viktorov (USSR, 1981)
The final purchase from that Russian DVD site. I’d seen a version of this previously, a badly-butchered English-dubbed version titled Humanoid Woman. It had never made sense. Now I’ve seen the full three-hour original, I finally understand the story. But it’s still bonkers. In the first half, a strange woman is discovered in a wrecked spaceship and goes to live with a scientist’s family. The second half covers a rescue mission to her planet to save it after rampant capitalism has brought about ecological disaster. Also features the WORST ROBOT EVAH.

TTSBHW_femalien02

Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie, Martyn Pick (UK, 2010)
I’m not a fan of the game so I’ve no idea what possessed me to stick this on my rental list, but I did and… All-CGI with some well-known names providing the voices, and a plot stolen from every modern war film ever. The characters don’t look quite right – their shoulders are in the wrong place – and they move weirdly, and the whole thing is extremely dull and badly-paced. Avoid. Even if you’re a Warhammer 40k fan.

Between Your Legs, Manuel Gómez Pereira (Spain, 1999)
A twisty-turny thriller that aims for Hitchcock but misses and hits De Palma. Javier Bardem is a sex addict who takes up with fellow sex addict Victoria Abril, only to discover that someone has been selling tapes of private phone sex he’d been having with another woman. Abril’s husband, meanwhile, is a detective investigating the murder of a young man, and the evidence is starting to point to Bardem… You know when you get to the twist in a De Palma film and you realise it’s been done before? That. Not bad, though.

Anna Karenina, Joe Wright (UK, 2012)
This adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel is notable because it’s filmed as though it were set inside a theatre, with overt theatre sets becoming the mise en scène of shots. A nice idea in theory but it turns the film into a Sixth Form play. Also, Keira Knightley in the title role. I find her really hard to watch.

La Boulangère de Monceau, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
The first of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, filmed in black and white on 16mm. A young man falls in love with a woman he passes on the street every day, but when she no longer begins appearing, he hunts for her in the surrounding streets… and stumbles across a bakery where he starts buying something to eat every day. Then he and the girl in the bakery start flirting with each other, and he decides he’ll go out with her since he’s lost the other one… only for her to re-appear. It’s supposed to be a moral dilemma – which girl does he choose? – but it only works because the young man is shallow and self-centred, and the women only exist in relation to him. Later films in the series were much better.

La Carrière de Suzanne, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
A group of shallow twentysomethings live it up in Paris, and Suzanne is dragged into their circle. Guillaume ruthlessly exploits her, getting her to pay for things, dropping her and only returning to her when his present relationship ends… But she seems more than willing to put up it, and even gives up her job, the better to be at the group’s beck and call. The film aims for deep truth, but uses shallow characters to explore it. Not entirely sure it’s a workable technique.


2 Comments

2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13’s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.


5 Comments

30 films in 30 words

Well, I used to do readings and watchings posts, and since I did 30 words on 30 books, I should do the same for the movies I’ve watched. It’s the usual eclectic mix, of course.

Bunny Lake Is Missing, Otto Preminger (1965)
American expats newly arrived in London misplace young daughter, but then it seems daughter might never have even existed. Police very confused. But all a cunning plot. Curiously low-key thriller.

Limitless, Neil Burger (2011)
Just think what you could if you had total mental focus. Why, you could make movies like this one. Smart drug leads to smarter than expected film. Actually worth seeing.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev (2009)
Swedish TV series original. Swedish Nazi back during WWII proves to be psycho killer. Big surprise. Journo and hacker chick investigate. Interesting thriller with good characters and sense of history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Lisbeth Salander tracks down her evil dad, ex-KGB bigwig. He tries to kill her but she won’t be put down. Thriller series turns silly as Salander develops superpowers. Or something.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Salander’s evil dad was protected by secret group within Swedish spy services as Millennium trilogy jumps shark. Drawn-out courtroom drama stretches credulity way past breaking-point. Makes 007 look eminently plausible.

Red Psalm, Miklós Janscó (1972)
Hippie paean to 19th century Hungarian peasant revolts, with much socialist declaiming, folk songs, striding about and a complete lack of coherent plot. Brilliant. Loved it. More please. Review here.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Frank Capra (1936)
Simple but honest man inherits fortune and elects to do good with it. Establishment aren’t having it and try to have him declared mentally unfit. Heart worn blatantly on sleeve.

Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata (1988)
During WWII, kids run away from mean aunt and hide out in abandoned air-raid shelter. Of course, they’ve no idea how to cope on own. Sad story spoiled by mawkishness.

Claire’s Knee, Éric Rohmer (1970)
Fifth of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Educated French middle-class people pontificate on love while one of them fantasises about a teenage girl’s knee. Too many words, not enough insight. Meh.

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
A dubbed Richard Harris visiting Ravenna gets friendly with his friend’s wife, mentally-fragile Monica Vitti, in beautifully-shot industrial landscape. Incredibly painterly film. Slow but involving. Brilliant. Loved it. Review here.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
Tarkovsky’s first feature film. Orphaned boy acts as scout behind enemy lines for Red Army in WWII. Many touches of Tarkovsky genius but much more straightforward than his other films.

Torment, Alf Sjöberg (1944)
Bergmans’ first film, though he only provided script. Moody student carries on with corner-shop girl, but she is murdered – and nasty teacher did it. Hitchcockian thriller seen through distorting mirror.

, Frederico Fellini (1962)
Saw La Dolce Vita years ago and not impressed, so surprised to discover I loved this. Marcello Mastroianni meditates on life and art while making sf film. Huge ending. Glorious.

Heaven Can Wait, Ernst Lubitsch (1943)
Technicolor New York in 19th century as dead self-effacing millionaire Don Ameche is sent to Hell and is forced to reveal he was actually a nice bloke. Not a classic.

Melancholia, Lars von Trier (2011)
Planet on collision course with Earth. Everyone panic. Except people with clinical depression, that is. Lovely photography, good acting, bollocks physics. Can’t honestly see why people rate this so highly.

My Night at Maud’s, Éric Rohmer (1969)
Third of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Catholic stalks young woman, then talks about religion, fidelity and love with friend and his girlfriend all night. Lessons to be learned. I think.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell whoop it up among dirty old men on liner to Europe. It’s a cunning plot to force Monroe’s beau to declare. Goes wrong. Technicolor fun.

Summer With Monika, Ingmar Bergman (1953)
Young working-class lovers run away to Swedish islands. Monika gets pregnant, they return to the real world. But Monika’s not the home-making type. See, it was grim in Sweden too.

Santa Sangre, Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
Boy grows up in circus, witnesses mother have her arms cut off by mad knife-thrower. Years later, she uses him to commit crimes. It’s by Jodorowsky. So it’s completely bonkers.

Les Enfants Du Paradis, Marcel Carne (1945)
The lives and loves of assorted theatre types in early 19th century Paris. Three hours long, and feels like it. A classic to many, I found it slow and dull.

Pocketful Of Miracles, Frank Capra (1961)
Homeless lady is lucky charm for gangster in 1920s New York in cross between Cinderella and Pygmalion. Played for laughs but not much is a laughing matter. Capra’s last film.

The Magician, Ingmar Bergman (1958)
Max von Sydow gurns in title role as three town worthies take the piss out him in 19th century Sweden. Science vs magic and the fight is fixed from start.

Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov (1965)
Earlier “poetic cinema” by director of The Colour of Pomegranates. Beautifully-shot, absolutely fascinating, makes no sense whatsoever. More please.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder (2011)
They’re mental patients. No, they’re prostitutes. No, they’re super agents in steampunkish fantasy world. In corsets and stockings. Kick-ass women as exceptional – and hot – tools of patriarchy. Wrong message.

Captain America, Joe Johnston (2011)
Possibly the best of the recent rash of superhero films. Retro-action during WWII as Cap sells war bonds across US and then tackles Red Skull in his lair. Almost fun.

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky (2010)
Ballet dancer driven to dance perfectly driven to madness. Well-played, though not the most original story ever. At least her shoes weren’t red. Have yet to figure out Aronofsky’s career.

Highlander 5: The Source, Brett Leonard (2007)
Worst film in a bad franchise, and possibly worst film ever made. Even the covers of Queen songs were terrible. There can only be one. Nope. Fear for your sanity.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay (2011)
More coherent than earlier Transformers films, but just as offensive. Irritating, stupid, and wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s not big and it’s not clever – someone should tattoo that on Bay’s forehead.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam (2009)
Carnival-type caravan wanders London and there are wonders within. Famously whimsical director produces another piece of whimsy. Yawn. Heath Ledger died during film, but story was rescued. Still dull, though.

Szindbád, Zoltán Huszárik (1971)
A classic of the Hungarian New Wave, just like Red Psalm. Just shows how individual are responses to such films. Loved Red Psalm, but found this one a bit dull.


1 Comment

readings & watchings 2011 #3

Yet more culture – or its complete opposite – devoured by Yours Truly in the past four weeks or so. Someone, incidentally, needs to invent a way to upload books directly to the brain. Reading them is too low-bandwidth. I’m never going to be able to get the TBR down to manageable levels if it takes me two to three days to take in a book by scanning and parsing each page serially.

Books
Wormwood, Terry Dowling (1992). I was intrigued by the story Dowling contributed to The New Space Opera 2. While I found it a little too dependent on familiarity with the setting, I did think that setting worthy of further reading. But all I could find reference to was a single collection, Wormwood, published by Australian small press Aphelion, in 1992. It contained seven stories set in the same universe, most of which appeared in Australian sf magazines. After some searching, I tracked down a copy of the book – the signed hardback, as I couldn’t find any copies of the paperback – bought it, and read it. And… The future Earth Dowling has created is indeed fascinating. A mysterious alien race, the Nobodoi, has remade the planet, chopping it up into regions with different environments (some of which are lethal to humans). Several other alien races have also settled Earth, and humanity has found itself no longer ruler of its planet. The stories set in this world are not entirely successful. ‘Housecall’ is quite good, a haunted house story, in which two thieves must break into an alien’s booby-trapped house. ‘A Deadly Edge Their Red Beaks Pass Along’ is similar, and quite effective. Not a bad collection, and I’d certainly read more if Dowling revisited the setting.

Easy Meat, John Harvey (1996). I used to rattle through Harvey’s novels when I was living in the UAE. I’d get them out of the subscription library to which I belonged, and read them the same day. Their chief attraction was that they were set in Nottingham, a city I used to know well. The main character, Charlie Resnick, is a police detective, a lover of jazz and exotic sandwiches, and has ties to the local Polish community. He’s a bit of a glum sort too. In this one, a young offender dies in custody. Resnick is worried the investigation will result in a whitewash, but is taken off the case to investigate a fatal mugging. Then the near-retirement officer who replaces Resnick on the first case is murdered – and it looks like it was by the same people who committed the mugging… They sort of keep you entertained books like this, but only while you’re reading them. As soon as you finish them, they’re gone, forgotten. Resnick doesn’t especially stand out as a character, and the crimes are usually the sort of every day stuff you can read about in the Daily Fail. I think I’ll call it a day on this particular series.

Midnight Fugue, Reginald Hill (2009), is by another crime author whose books I used to read for light relief when I was in the Gulf. I also enjoyed the Dalziel & Pascoe television adaptations when I was back in the UK on leave. But the quality of the books has sadly declined over the years – this one reads as though Hill knocked it out between cappuccinos – so I’d not bothered keeping up with the series. But then my mother lent me Midnight Fugue, so I decided to give it a go. I read it in a single day. It all feels a bit perfunctory. Dalziel, who was always more of a caricature than a character, is a shadow of his former self. The invented town of Wetherton (allegedly based on Wetherby, although I know Wetherby well and have never been able to spot the similarities) could be anywhere in the UK, and the crime which drives the plot comes across more like an intellectual exercise than something involving human beings and death. So, another series I’m going to have give up on. Again.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), may have a somewhat forced title, and is a pretty huge coffee-table book – 26 x 34 cm – but it’s also full of amazing and wonderful photographs. Over the course of more than a decade, Chaubin travelled around East Europe, and photographed modernist buildings. Not all of them still stand today. Many of them are very strange, but also quite beautiful. You can page through it here. I’m pretty sure CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed is going to make my Best of the Year list.

Dark Space, Marianne de Pierres (2007), the first book of the Sentients of Orion tetraology, was March’s book for my 2011 reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers (2010), is the book of Kempenaers’ photography exhibit about the eponymous objects. Spomenik is Serbo-Croat for “monument”, and that’s what the exhibit was about. Monuments to those lost in World War II built built during the 1960s and 1970s throughout the former Yugoslavia. Many were destroyed when Yugoslavia collapsed, many have been allowed to fall into disrepair, but some still remain in good condition. Spomenik contains photographs of twenty-two of them. They are weird, modernist sculptures, many on a huge scale, baffling and weirdly beautiful.

Pig Tales, Marie Darrieussecq (1996), I scored from bookmooch.com because it was on that list of 1001 books you should read published by the Guardian a couple of years ago. I’ve no idea why, because it’s complete rubbish. The narrator of the story is a dim-witted young woman in Paris who slowly turns into a pig, and back again, several times. The whole thing read like it was made up by a kid. None of the details convinced – I don’t mean the narrator’s transformation, obviously that wasn’t intended to be “convincing” – but the details of her life, first as a shop assistant, then as a prostitute. None of it was even remotely realistic. Then about halfway through the novel some plutocrat seizes control of the French government and ushers in a collapse of French civilisation. The language throughout Pig Tales was no better, and I’m not sure it can be entirely blamed on the translator. The narrator is clearly meant to be unsophisticated, but that doesn’t explain all the horrible clichés Darrieussecq uses. Complete and utter, well, tripe. Avoid.

Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan (2011), I’m working on a review of this SFF Chronicles.

Blindsight, Peter Watts (2003). I’d been told many times by many people that this was a novel I would like. Earlier this year, I finally got round to picking up a copy. And now that I’ve read it… Good, but it may have been oversold to me. Sometime toward the end of this century, the Earth learns it is not alone – but quite what the “Fireflies” were, or what they were for, is anybody’s guess. When an artificial signal is detected from near the edge of the Solar system, a ship is sent to investigate. It finds a Jovian planet, and in close orbit about it, an alien ship. But Blindsight is not your typical first contact novel. The aliens are really very alien. Blindsight is filled with interesting ideas, but as I read it something about it kept on bothering me. It was a while before I figured it out. It read like a sf novel from the mid-1990s. It was the little things – a character who smokes like a chimney, the use of the word “spam” as a euphemism for human beings plugged into machinery, the tone of the story… It also reminded me a little of Williams & Dix’s Heirs of Earth.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004), is only Robinson’s second novel, twenty-four years after her first, Housekeeping. It also won the Pulitzer Prize. Gilead is framed as an extended letter from a dying reverend in 1950s Iowa to his young son (although he is not intended to be given it until he’s much older). There are some lovely anecdotes, and some interesting – and very personal – history. But. I was never really convinced by the narrator. He’s meant to be a pastor in his sixties or seventies, and yet he seemed a bit too, well, maternal in places. He seemed too sensitive, too considerate, to actually be a man, especially a religious man of the 1950s. Having said that, the writing throughout is beautiful. I might try Robinson’s other two novels.

Ghostwritten, David Mitchell (1999), is Mitchell’s debut and, like his other novels I’ve read, isn’t quite the sum of its parts. It opens in Okinawa, with the first-person narrative of a terrorist hiding out after a gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The terrorist is quite bonkers – completely in the thrall of a cult leader. The next section is set in Tokyo, and the narrator is a young slacker who works in a jazz record shop, and falls in love with a half-Chinese half-Japanese young women visiting relatives. She lives in Hong Hong. Which is where the following section is set. The narrator this time is a bent broker, like Nick Leeson, who comes a cropper when he loses the money he’s laundering for a Russian mobster. And so on… The book is structured as these short, mostly independent sections. There are links between some – and occasional events and characters do cross over. About halfway through, we’re suddenly introduced to an “incorporal”, a bodiless person who inhabits the mind of one of the characters, and can transfer from person to person. The final section features what is obviously an AI, tasked with preventing wars from ever recurring, but having trouble meeting this objective. Those two genre elements are just too odd and disconnected to sit comfortably in what had initially seemed a series of linked stories with an implied story-arc. There is, it has to be said, some really nice writing in Ghostwritten, and it’s a very readable novel. But it just feels like it doesn’t quite add up.

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), was Herter’s second novel, and I bought it when it was published. Why it’s sat on my book-shelves unread since then, I’ve no idea. I thought Herter’s debut, Ceres Storm, excellent. Perhaps it was because it was fantasy, rather than the sf of his debut. Whatever the reason, I shouldn’t have left it so long. Because Evening’s Empire really is very good indeed. Russell Kent is a composer, working on an  opera inspired by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Needing somewhere quiet and inspiring to work, he returns to the small out-of-the-way Oregon town of Evening. During his last visit there several years before, his wife slipped and fell to her death from a bluff overlooking the sea. Evening’s Empire begins in a very Crowley-esque vein, but somewhere in the middle it takes a strange left-hand turn – strange in a good way. It is not the novel I expected it to be when I started it. It is also beautifully written. A definite contender for my top five best of the year.

Say Goodbye, Lewis Shiner (1999). I’m a big fan of Shiner’s writing, and own all his books. Say Goodbye, subtitled The Laurie Moss Story, is not genre. It is, like Glimpses, a mainstream novel about music. In this case, Laurie Moss, a young hopeful who moves to LA to make it big. Opening in the form of reminiscences by a journalist about his writing the Laurie Moss story, it soon moves into a more traditional narrative. Moss hooks up with some important people, and her career gets an impressive kick-start. But she doesn’t, as the first half of the book implies, make it big. Her band suffers while on tour, and then the record company shafts her. Say Goodbye is a good novel, but it does feel a bit lightweight.

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi (2010). I hadn’t intended to do a full-on review of this, but after thinking about it decided it was worth one. You can find my review on SFF Chronicles here. It’s a book which can probably be studied in more depth than I did, but never mind.

Films
Millennium season 2 (1998). Frank Black is an ex-FBI profiler with a psychic gift: when in the presence of a victim, he can see in his mind what the killer saw. In season one of Millennium, he had returned to Seattle with his wife and young daughter, and begun working for the Millennium Group, consultants who help the police solve crimes. The seasons was basically crime-of-the-week, with a slow-burning story-arc based on the Millennium Group. In season two, the Millennium Group’s history – and the series mythology – begins to dominate. The Millennium are not just a bunch of ex-law enforcement professionals with weird apocalyptic ideas, they’re actually a bizarre cult, descended from the knights templar or something, and charged with protecting an important holy relic (which they had actually lost). I still like Millennium, and Lance Hendrickson successfully carries the series as Frank Black, but all the historical conspiracy stuff, and the schism within the Millennium Group, did start feel a bit silly and over-the-top. We’ll see if the third and final season can rescue it.

Sans Soleil, dir. Chris Marker (1983), is a very strange film. Which is not unexpected. Marker, after all, directed Le Jetée, a film entirely comprised of black-and-white stills with a voice-over (but likely best known these days as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys). Sans Soleil also stretches the definition of a “film” inasmuch as it is presented as a series of short linked filmed vignettes from around the world, over which a woman reads a series of letters to the cameraman. Some of the footage is very good, but the lack of narrative, or even drama, makes it a difficult movie to watch to remain focussed on. It’s probably going to need a second sitting before I have it entirely clear in my head. Unfortunately, it was a rental.

Age of the Dragons, dir. Ryan Little (2011), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Stuart Burge (1984), was a surprise. I knew of the play, of course, but nothing of the story. It turned out to be typical Shakespearean fare: star-crossed lovers, mistaken identities, Elizabethan banter, sword-fights… But it was so much better than some of the other Shakespearean plays I’ve seen. The wit was, as usual, a bit heavy-handed in some scenes. But in others, it was very nicely done. Benedick (Robert Lindsay) doesn’t believe in love; neither does the shrewish Beatrice (Cherie Lunghi). So their friends tell each one that the other is madly in love with them, and so trick them into actually being so. Meanwhile, Claudio and Hero are madly in love, but evil Don John (he even has a goatee) plots to scupper it. Wandering around the play are the watch, led by Dogberry (Michael Elphick), who talks in really obvious and heavy-handed malapropisms. Elphick was not especially good in the role either, and seemed perpetually covered in sweat. Happily, Lindsay and Lunghi were excellent, and the banter between the two was done well. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve found the other Shakespearean comedies I’ve seen to be a bit obvious and blunt-witted, but this one was a real charmer.

Trafficked, dir. Ciarán O’Connor (2004), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

The Runaways, dir. Floria Sigismondi (2010), is based on a real-life group of the same name, the first successful all-female rock group. It’s where Joan Jett’s career began. As did Lita Ford’s. I saw Lita Ford live back in the late 1980s at Coventry Polytechnic. I don’t remember the gig being especially good. But The Runaways… The cast played their parts well, bit it never really felt like it was based on a true story. Perhaps that was because the story Sigismondi wanted to tell wasn’t the actual story of the band. It was an entertaining film, and the music was quite good. I was actually surprised at how good the Runaways had been as musicians – you usually expect garage bands of that sort to be pretty bad to begin with. The film did wander off on some weird dream-like sequences on occasion, which added very little to the story. But a film worth seeing.

Against All Flags, dir. George Sherman (1952). They don’t make films like this anymore. Which is probably just as well. It’s about as historically accurate as the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but, well, silly. Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn plays an officer aboard a British merchant ship en route to India, who goes undercover on pirate haven Madagascar. His task is to spike the island’s guns, as these have prevented the Royal Navy’s previous attempts to clean out the hive of scum and villainy found there. When Flynn and a pair of fellow seamen turn up at the pirate base of Diego-Suarez, not everyone welcomes him with open arms. Anthony Quinn, for one, believes him to be a spy. But Maureen O’Hara, who is a Captain of the Coast, but not a pirate per se – she owns a ship, but mainly looks after her gun and sword shop – believes Flynn to be on the level. And he fancies her. And from there it’s all Hollywood pirate shenanigans, with everywhere proving remarkably clean and the violence unsurprisingly sanitised. Flynn’s Australian accent is quite noticeable, but he acted better than I’d expected. Quinn just chews the scenery, and the rigging, and the everything else in sight. O’Hara’s character is called “Spitfire”, which tells you all you need to know about her characterisation. Even for a Sunday afternoon movie, this is risible stuff.

Ink, dir. Jamin Winans (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Our Man in Havana, dir. Carol Reed (1959), is based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name, and was adapted by him for the screen. Alec Guinness plays the title character, Wormold, a vacuum salesman in the Cuban capital. Desperate for money to keep his nubile teenage daughter (who looks suspiciously adult) in the style to which he is accustomed, Wormold agrees to act as a paid spy for HMG. Not actually having access to any useful intelligence, he makes stuff up. And one such “coup”, drawings of a secret project hidden in the hills outside Cuba, which he actually made up by sketching vacuum cleaner parts, gets the British secret services in a tizzy. It all comes to a head, of course, and Wormold has to come clean. But not before a few friends and acquaintances have died. As a comedy, it’s a bit grim. Guinness is great as Wormold, a proper thesp, with a lightness of touch that steals the film. Maureen O’Hara plays his no-nonsense assistant, sent out from London to help him manage his (non-existent) ring of agents. A sharp script, some excellent acting, and directed by Carol Reed: a film certainly worth watching.

Lady Godiva, dir. Arthur Lubin (1955), is yet more proof they made crap films as well as good ones fifty years ago. Hollywood has always had a creative approach to history, especially other countries’. Well, they don’t have any of their own to garble, I suppose. In Lady Godiva, Maureen O’Hara plays the title character, a Saxon noble lady who marries Lord Leofric of Coventry (George Nader, who seems to have plasticised hair). He has been imprisoned in her father’s jail – he’s a sheriff somewhere in Lincolnshire – after refusing to marry a Norman woman when told to by King Edward the Confessor. Happily, the king soon comes to appreciate Lady Godiva’s good qualities. Unhappily, neither Leofric, nor his rival Lord Godwin, are especially big fans of the king, who they can plainly see is overly influenced by his Norman advisors. Eventually, a cunning plot is hatched which sees Edward reconciled to his Saxon barons, the Normans out of favour, and Godwin’s son, Harold (played by Rex Reason of This Island Earth fame), as the heir to the throne. Harold, of course, gets in the eye a few years later, and the Normans end up in charge anyway, but never mind. Historically, Godiva’s famous ride was in protest against punitive levels of taxation (I can’t quite imagine Kate Middleton doing the same today in response to Tory policies), but in the film she rides naked through the streets to show Saxon support for King Edward. Or perhaps the opposite. I went to uni in Coventry, incidentally. Not much of the city from the eleventh century has survived, but even so there wasn’t much that looked mediaeval about the Coventry of the film. These days, Lady Godiva is chiefly notable for an uncredited early appearance by Clint Eastwood as “First Saxon”.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington, dir. Frank Capra (1939). I’ve yet to get a handle on Capra’s politics. He seems at times like the archetypal Hollywood liberal, and yet an occasional streak of Randism often seems to surface in his films. Perhaps that’s simply US politics, which is, naturally, foreign to me. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is a case in point. It’s clearly a paean to the venerable tradition of democracy as practiced in the USA, yet it goes about praising the institution in a peculiar way. A senator dies in office, and the state governor must appoint one for the interim. A local plutocrat, who controls the governor, doesn’t mind who providing the candidate rubber-stamps a scheme he has cooked up for a hydro-electric dam (which will profit him, and the state’s other senator, Claude Rains, greatly). They chose James Stewart (the Smith of the title), a popular and woefully naive scout master, as their new senator. Unfortunately, once in Washington Smith stumbles across their scheme and tries to prevent it. But Rains and the plutocrat drum up support against him, and fabricate evidence showing he is corrupt, in an attempt to have him removed from office. Smith responds by “filibustering” – keeping the floor of the Senate as long as he can talk, while his friends hunt for evidence to exonerate him. Which, of course, they do. Smith is clearly an everyman – committed to the ideals which founded the US, firmly against corruption, and yet willing to bend the system to ensure justice prevails – and in this case, justice aligns precisely with his own wishes. Stewart comes across as a little too desperate to right wrongs, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Rains is good as the urbane, experienced senator who is both party to the scam and yet reluctantly involved. I’m not entirely sure why Mr Smith Goes to Washington is considered a classic, and these days it’s more of an historical curiosity than a meaningful melodrama. Nevertheless, my soft spot for Capra’s films remains untarnished.

A Summer’s Tale, dir. Éric Rohmer (1996), is the third of Rohmer’s quartet of films named for the seasons. It is also the best of the ones I’ve seen so far. Gaspard arrives in Breton seaside resort Dinard expecting his girlfriend Lena to arrive a few days later. Unfortunately, she’s not very reliable – or indeed entirely his girlfriend as she doesn’t want to commit fully. Shortly after arriving in Dinard, Gaspard meets Margot, a doctoral student who is working as a waitress in her family’s restaurant over the holiday. The two spend their days together, but merely as friends. As Lena’s arrival is further and further delayed, Gaspard and Margot discuss relationships. Margot introduces Gaspard to Solene, a friend of hers. Solene wants to go out with Gaspard, and, since Lena doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon, Gaspard agrees. And then Lena does appear – and she’s decided she wants to commit to a relationship with Gaspard. Unfortunately, he’s made plans with Solene to visit a nearby island, assuming Lena would not arrive on time. And he’s promised to take Margot if Solene doesn’t want to go… A Summer’s Tale is one of those stories the French do so well, a beautifully judged romantic triangle, played with an astonishingly light touch.

The Space Race (2007) is a compilation of newsreel footage from the 1940s to the 1960s covering assorted events related to space exploration. There’s the two failed Vanguard launches, of course; Telstar; Yuri Gagarin; Alan Shepard meeting JFK; and John Glenn being recovered after splashdown. Some of the footage about the Soviets uses a V-2 launch instead as they, unsurprisingly, had no footage of a Vostok rocket. Also included, to give the flavour of the times, I suppose, are some unrelated news items, such as a bad railway accident in London, which I think was the Lewisham rail crash of 1957.

The Rare Breed, dir. Andrew V McLaglen (1966), is an odd film. I’m not a big fan of Westerns (with the notable exception of Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo), but I do find James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara very watchable actors. But I had to wonder why either was cast in this film. Notto mention Brian Keith’s presence. Stewart plays ‘Bulldog’ Burnett, so called for his talent at ‘bulldogging’ or bringing down a steer by wrestling its horns. O’Hara is Mrs Price, a recently widowed English lady, who has brought her daughter and a prize Hereford bull to the US. She is convinced the US Longhorn cattle would benefit greatly from being crossbred with her Hereford. She sells the bull to a broker who is more interested in forming an attachment with her. To escape his advances, she agrees to accompany the bull to its new owner in Texas, Brian Keith. Meanwhile, the broker has hired Stewart to take the bull to Texas, but Stewart also agrees to rustle it for another rancher. There are some impressive landscapes on display in The Rare Breed, but little else that can be said about it. Stewart is plainly too old for his role. O’Hara plays an English lady with a marked Irish accent (not implausible, but it does undermine the character a little). And Brian Keith, who plays a rancher who looks like Yosemite Sam, puts on one of the worst Scottish accents I’ve ever heard. The two romantic subplots are also about as convincing as Keith’s accent, as are those scenes filmed on a soundstage. Watch it for the Texan countryside, ignore everything else.