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Moving pictures 2019, #29

Still trying to catch up. An even more mixed bunch than usual. If that’s possible.

Tschick, Fatih Akın (2016, Germany). The title is the nickname of a new boy who joins fourteen year old Maik’s class at school. Tschick is a Russian immigrant, with less than fluent German, and what appears to be a drink problem. Maik is the class misfit – he lusts after the most popular girl in the class, but she completely ignores his existence, so much so she throws a party and invites everyone in the class except Maik. On the night of the party, Tschick turns up in a stolen Lada 4WD and the two decide to head south to Walachia to visit Tschick’s grandmother. So you have a road movie, in which the two protagonists are fourteen years old but end up in escapades little different to those experienced by older characters in similar films, except perhaps for the lack of alcohol. And it works. The book on which it’s based is a YA novel and critically acclaimed. Its author was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2010 and committed suicide three years later. He was 48. None of which is especially relevant, particularly since the film does not come across as YA material. This is not like The Hunger Games. The two leads are good in their roles, and their adventures are believable. Definitely worth seeing.

Circus of Horrors, Sidney Hayers (1960, UK). I have of late been sampling many mid-twentieth century British horror films. I’m not a fan of horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But old school horror I quite enjoy, if only because its effects are so obviously effects. And old British ones – especially Hammer – I also find appealing because, well, they’re so British. Circus of Horrors is not a Hammer film, although it’s much like their output of the time (which may tell you something about the success of their formula). A plastic surgeon is forced to flee after his operation on a famous actress goes wrong. He stumbles across a travelling circus in France. The owner’s daughter is badly scarred on the face, so the surgeon operates, and consequently joins the circus as part-owner, as he believes it to be a perfect cover for his continued explorations into plastic surgery. Except, when you think about it, it’s not. How can you move a sophisticated surgical suite around with a circus? It’s not like circuses are known for their cleanliness and hygiene. Anyway, everything seems to be going well, but then the circus crosses the Channel, and then someone recognises the plastic surgeon… Circus of Horrors is not really a horror film, although it does feature a circus. I’d say it was more thriller territory, unless you consider facial scars horrific – although this is a 1960s British film – but as a thriller its story is a bit, well, silly. It is in fact altogether a bit silly, but it keeps a straight face throughout and its commitment to its premise is quite impressive. I enjoyed it, but I suspect its appeal is limited.

The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China). The story is based on a novella by the first Chinese author to win the Hugo Award (Cixin Liu, in 2015 for The Three Body Problem), although it makes a number of changes. There was a big thing in US science fiction a couple of years ago for Chinese authors, and despite Chinese authors having written genre fiction for many years, and occasional novels being translated into English, although not always published by genre imprints, not to mention Chinese-made genre films from both Hong Kong and mainland China being not especially hard to find in the West for at least three or four decades, some of which were science fiction… I mean, the Chinese language science fiction world is bigger than the English language one but some people seemed to think they were doing Chinese authors a favour by giving them the red carpet treatment in the West. And this film is a perfect illustration of how dumb those people were. It’s a big budget Chinese science fiction movie designed partly to ape Western science fiction movies – and its financing was difficult at best – but even then China has been busy investing in Western genre movies like The Meg, so much so “trans-Pacific” is almost becoming a genre of its own, when it all means nothing because The Wandering Earth will be judged by most of its viewers as a science fiction movie (except for those fuckwits too dumb to watch a movie that has subtitles, of course). And, as a science fiction movie, The Wandering Earth looks amazing but doesn’t really make much sense. So, just like a Hollywood big budget sf movie, then. Scientists discover the Sun is about to turn into a red giant, which forces the nations of Earth to unite – a long-running wet dream of science fiction – and  build thousands of giant fusion engines to push Earth out of its orbit and on a trip to Alpha Centauri, 4.2 light years away (and probably not a good choice for a destination anyway but never mind). One of the engines breaks, the planet doesn’t have enough power to escape Jupiter’s gravitational pull (and it would take decades to reach Jupiter but never mind), and everyone runs around frantically try to fix shit (and it all seems weirdly manual but never mind). It’s all completely manufactured jeopardy because we’re following the rules set by the writer, whether or not they make sense, and that may well be a defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre, but as far as cinema goes at least eighty percent of the appeal lies in the visuals, and in that department The Wandering Earth scores highly. For all its production problems, this is a good-looking state of the art science fiction cinema as practiced both in the East and the West. It wouldn’t surprise me if it appears on a few genre award lists next year – and it might actually deserve nomination.

In the Shadow of the Moon, Jim Mickle (2019, USA). There is a film, a British documentary, with the same title, which is about the Apollo astronauts. This is not that film. It is, in fact, a US high concept sf thriller. In 1988, a Philadelphia cop with ambitions to become a detective becomes interested in a series of seeming accidents in which those who caused the accidents apparently had their brains turn to liquid. A mysterious young woman in a hoodie is seen in the vicinity. Similar events occur at nine-year intervals, each time investigated by the cop as he rises up the ranks. It turns out the accidents are murders, perpetrated by an assassin from the future, who is actually travelling backwards in time, so her future is the policeman’s past (this is not a spoiler). The science behind this is the usual movieland technobollocks, but the concept is handled well, and there are several twists which are well-placed and still surprising. The film seems to take a while to get where it’s going, when anyone familiar with sf will figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. True, it might seem obvious to the viewer – but that’s because the viewer knows t’s fiction and somewhat different rules apply, but if the characters are being true to their world they’re hardly going to spot that their murderer is a time traveller. Yu know what I mean. In the Shadow of the Moon would have benefited with a little more pace, and a faster approach to its central premise, but it was still well-handled and well-played. Worth seeing.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, Anthony Mann (1964, USA). This movie is often named as one of Hollywood’s greatest historical epics, from that time when Hollywood churned out more historical epics than you could shake a reasonably-sized, well, historian at. Although a box office flop on its release, it now enjoys a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. True, as Hollywood historical epics go, it’s as Hollywood historical, er, epic-al as you can get. It still holds the record for the largest set ever built. The most bizarre thing about watching it, however, is that Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which pretty much everyone has seen, is more or less a remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire – mostly unacknowledged – and that lends the latter a weird sense of déjà vu despite it being the earlier film. (This may not be true for people now in their seventies or above.) Anyway, both cover the same period of Roman history, ie the death of Marcus Aurelius at the hands of a cabal of plotters, and the ascension of his dissolute son Commodus, instead of his chosen heir, the general Gaius Livius. Commodus promptly goes full-on batshit crazy Roman emperor and has himself declared a god, leading to what was the first of many raids on the empire by the Goths, the last of which a century or two later eventually brought it down. They say those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and while the UK may well have been a Roman province at one point, the history of the Roman Empire is hardly the islands’ history… but it’s tempting to point at the shit going down these days and wonder if one or two senior politicians have not got a touch of the Commodus. But, the movie… It’s very much what it says on the tin: mid-twentieth century big budget historical epic, peppered with big names and familiar faces, a glib if not irresponsible retelling of historical events, and an example of pure Hollywood spectacle that proudly displays every dollar of its massive budget onscreen. They do not, as they say, make them like that any more. And more’s the pity. The Fall of the Roman Empire is not a great film – Gladiator makes a better fist of the same material – but it is a great viewing experience. Worth seeing.

All the Colours of the Dark, Sergio Martino (1972, Italy). I do like me some giallo, and Shameless Video have done an excellent job of making them available on DVD or Blu-ray, and even on Amazon Prime. True, most of the giallo films are not very good, although the genre has thrown up the odd gem, such as Footprints on the Moon (still a favourite). The Shameless releases on Amazon Prime are mostly those films starring Edwige Fenech, who was undoubtedly watchable, but I would prefer their choice to be driven by plot rather than actress. But no matter. In All the Colours of the Dark, Fenech playsa young woman who is haunted by a stalker, and somehow finds herself joining a Satanic cult, initially to protect herself from the stalker but then it turns out he’s one of them, but what is real and what is nightmare is very much left for the viewer to decide. The film has its moments, but it does often feel like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror – a favourite TV series from the 1980s; get the DVD collection if you can – chiefly because it was filmed in the UK. As an episode of a Hammer House of Horror-like TV series, despite its feature-film length, it succeeds quite well. It is, naturally, very seventies. Almost definingly so. Which was part of its charm. The plot spends much of its time trying to present occult happenings only to fall back on a quotidian explanation, which is not a criticism and might well be a characteristic of the genre. It works for me. The low production values, the often-poor script… these are part of giallo’s appeal, and All the Colours of the Dark has it to a notable degree. I like these films, and among them this does indeed stand out as a good one (among the admittedly few I’ve seen). Set your expectations accordingly, and you will enjoy and appreciate this movie.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

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3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

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5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

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2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

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Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

Oranssi_Pazuzu-Valonielu

3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

Cormorant-Earth-Diver

Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.


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Moving pictures, #4

Another dash through across the silver screen. Here are some of the more notable films I’ve watched recently.

The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA) Three women are employed at a New York publishing house. One makes the jump from secretary to reader to editor. The first half of the film is one of those beautifully-photographed 1950s melodramas, with some lovely shots of the New York of the time. Disappointingly, the second half trades that in for soap opera office politics.

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Elysium, Neill Blomkamp (2013, USA) Rich people live in the lap of luxury in the eponymous space habitat, while everyone else suffers in abject poverty on Earth – but that’s as far as the social commentary goes. This is really just another implausible actioner with a nice line in visuals and a bad handle on the laws of physics.

Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom, Piotr Szulkin (1986, Poland) Barking mad sf film, in which an astronaut lands on another world… which proves to be just like this one, except they treat their heroes somewhat differently. Not so much black comedy as fulginous.

Head-on, Fatih Akin (2004, Germany) Marriage of convenience between young Turkish-German woman and older Turkish-German man, so she can live the life she wants away from her traditional family, turns sour when the pair fall in love and he accidentally kills an ex-lover of hers. Not the most sympathetic of lead characters, but the actors playing them carry the film. Excellent.

Argo, Ben Affleck (2012, USA) You know when Canada rescued those US hostages from Iran back in 1980? Well, it wasn’t Canada that did it, it was the CIA. Yes, Americans. The whole film feels like a petulant grab to correct misplaced credit decades after the fact. And we’ll not mention the stupid race-against-time at the end to get the hostages out of the country…

The Killers, Robert Siodmak (1946, USA) Classic noir told through flashback, which explains why a pair of killers drove into town and killed garage mechanic Burt Lancaster. Turns out Burt used to be involved with a bad crowd, who pulled off a payroll robbery which turned nasty. Ava Gardner vamps it up, but I thought Rita Hayworth was better in Gilda (also released in 1946).

Villa Amalia, Benoît Jacquot (2009, France) Pianist Isabelle Huppert walks away from her life and settles down in the eponymous run-down villa in Italy. Beautifully shot, elegantly told. There something about the feel of the film which reminds me of François Ozon’s Under the Sand.

VILLA AMALIA un film de Benoit Jacquot

The Bank Dick, Edward Cline (1940, USA) WC Fields inadvertently catches a bank robber, is employed as the bank’s security guard as reward, and promptly cocks that up – much as he does everything. Mildly amusing, though not a patch on Laurel & Hardy.

Follow The Boys, Eddie Sutherland (1944, USA) Hollywood stars entertain the troops at training camps throughout the US during WWII, plus back-story showing how it all came about (entertaining the troops, that is, not WWII). Lots of cameos by big names. WC Fields is genuinely funny, Orson Welles puts on a magic act that clearly relies on camera trickery, and there’s a good tap dance in the rain from star of the film George Raft.

The Ugliest Woman In The World, Miguel Bardem (1999, Spain) Near-future thriller about a female killer which seems to have been inspired by so many other films it makes it difficult to remember what you’re watching. The premise is iffy – ugly young woman undergoes experimental gene therapy, which turns her beautiful… so she murders a contestant in the Miss Spain beauty pageant, takes her place, and proceeds to kill the other contestants. But the film is so odd, it sort of hangs together.

The Neptune Factor, Daniel Petrie (1973, Canada) Stone-faced grump Ben Gazzara is captain of a model submersible which is menaced by magnified tropical fish while searching for an underwater habitat lost during a seaquake. Oh, and there’s a giant crab too. They manage to find a pair of survivors, although how they didn’t get squished by the pressure is never explained. Jacques Cousteau it’s not.

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