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Moving pictures 2017, #1

The first film post of 2017. I’m not planning on watching as many films this year as last, since I’m hoping Ill be spending that time doing other things, like writing. I’m also going to try and watch two non-US films for every US one. I sort of managed it in this post – two US films, although admittedly one was a short, and the rest from the UK, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

meet_john_doeMeet John Doe, Frank Capra (1941, USA). The world was not a nicer place when Capra was making his films, but the solutions to its problems did seem so much easier to implement. And, of course, the same obstacles to those solutions existed then as now – greed, and the need for the rich to keep the poor in a place where they can control them and keep them poor. Meet John Doe is typical in that regard, so typical its story pretty much iterates that entire philosophy. A newspaper reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is fired when a new owner takes over her newspaper. She retaliates by publishing a suicide letter in her last column, in which a “John Doe” promises to leap from the newspaper building because of man’s greed and inhumanity to man. The new owner likes the letter, so much so it prompts a hunt for a real John Doe. And Garry Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player, is cast in the part. Cooper’s homespun neighbourliness strikes a chord, and people form John Doe clubs… and next thing you know there’s an entire political movement wrapped around it. Except the John Doe Clubs refuse to allow politicians as members. But then the newspaper owner who backed the campaign reveals he had planned to use it all along to create a third political party under his control. And when Cooper objects, they monster him in front of  his followers at a rally in a stadium – because, well, they’re scumbags, because that’s what rich people do when they don’t get their way. The whole grassroots movement then falls apart, and Cooper is driven into hiding. But the sheep-like people eventually see the error of their ways and the John Doe clubs start reforming… There’s a lot in Meet John Doe that maps onto twenty-first politics, proving only, I guess, that twenty-first century politics is not all that much different to twentieth-century politics. The homespun neighbourliness Cooper sells doesn’t play in the present day, what with assorted demagogues whipping up xenophobic and racist hate for their own ends – stand up, Mr Farage, Mr Trump.  Of course, this is a Capra movie, and he was a master at leaving the viewer feeling good about life. Which is where, I suppose, his films differ from real life…

masters_of_venusMasters of Venus (1962, UK). I remember the Children’s Film Foundation films you used to see at the cinema before the main feature, although this one predates me by quite a bit and was apparently shown on telly anyway. But it sounded worth a punt, so I stuck it on my rental list… and so it arrived and… it was pretty much completely as expected: the sort of science fiction film and television churned out until the late 1960s, and which never really convinced but then no one ever expected it to. A teenage boy and girl often visit their father’s work – he’s a rocket scientist, in charge of the first flight to Venus. On one particular visit, two sinister agents of an unknown power – they have six fingers on their hands, so it’s clearly not the Soviets – try to sabotage the rocket. They succeed in sabotaging the control centre, but the rocket – with two of its crew and the two teenagers – launches prematurely and sends the four off to Venus. Once they reach Venus, something seizes control of the rocket and prevents them from returning to Earth. The two astronauts investigate, and are captured by Venusians. So it’s up to the two kids to rescue them. Venus was apparently colonised by people from Atlantis and they’re afraid of conquest by Earth. There are two factions, Men of Action and Men of Science, and the former plan to destroy Earth to safeguard Venus. The latter would sooner reach an accommodation. Once on Venus, the story pretty much runs along well-established rails – captured, escape, captured again, find allies among Venusians, escape, turn tables, save the day, etc, etc. It’s fun, in a very dated sort of way, and does sort of make you pine for the simpler days of science fiction and story-telling. I mean, watching it fifty-plus years later as an adult, you’re going to get a different experience, and nostalgia is going to be ninety-nine parts of it. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise as, like most of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, Masters of Venus is well-made, pacey, and ticks (for the time) most of the right boxes. It’s an historical document, no denying that, but given that perspective it’s worth seeing.

maya_derenAt Land, Maya Deren (1944, USA). After watching Meshes of the Afternoon by Deren and Alexander Hammid, I had a look round on Youtube and it seems most of Deren’s output is on there. There’s been some controversy over who exactly contributed the most to Meshes of the Afternoon, with it generally being seen as chiefly Deren’s work, but Stan Brakhage claiming that Hammid was mostly responsible for it. But given that Deren went on to make nearly a dozen further films, and Hammid only made two more, and she spent decades lecturing on film-making, she’s clearly the more important figure of the two in American avant-garde cinema. And At Land, which has only her name attached, is not dissimilar to Meshes of the Afternoon in approach. It opens with reversed film of Deren emerging from the sea, but then she finds herself at a dinner party. There’s a chess game between two women on the beach, and lots of rolling around in the sand. It’s all completely silent – as was, in fact, Meshes of the Afternoon, until a soundtrack by Teiji Ito, who was married to Deren at the time, was added in 1959. I’m enjoying my delves into avant-garde cinema, although, to be honest, I’m not big on symbolic story-telling in the medium. I guess in that respect it’s little different to my taste for plain prose – prose claire, if you will – inasmuch as I’m all for evoking strangeness, but through the use of clear imagery. And, while Deren’s films are striking, I’m not sure I agree with obfuscation of story by telling it through symbolic imagery. It should be a value-add, not the be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, I plan to watch more of Deren’s films. If I can find them…

classic_bergmanSawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman (1953, Sweden). The title is a bit of a clue – and the DVD cover art would be even more of one, but my copy was part of the box set depicted – but this movie is set in a circus. But it’s not a happy movie. Well, it is a Bergman movie. Yes, yes, I know, he made some light-hearted comedies as well as his usual dour Nordic tragedies, but Sawdust and Tinsel falls firmly into the latter camp. A circus arrives in town, and the owner tries to patch things up with his ex-wife who lives in the town. But it goes badly, resulting in the man his current lover is having a fling with challenging the circus-owner and subsequently getting badly beaten up by him. There’s a certain flavour to Bergman’s films, no matter where they are set – a circus, a maternity ward, a holiday home – that tends to overpower any story he might tell. It’s not just the stark black and white cinematography, which is only true for about two-thirds of his oeuvre; or the “staginess” of many of his films, which give them the feel of theatre plays or literary short stories (although in a different fashion to, say, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story). I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bergman’s work, although I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of it. Some of his films are blindingly good, and he amassed a hugely impressive body of work… but I’m not sure yet how much value I put on many of his works. I think I need to know him better, I need to rewatch some of the films I’ve watched, perhaps with some sort of structure or purpose. I think he deserves it, and I think it would be rewarding doing so. And, to be fair, there are not that many directors you could say that about.

saloSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975, Italy). I didn’t go into this film completely ignorant of what it would be like, which was just as well, as it’s a brutal and horrible film, and while it certainly makes some important points, it nonetheless makes for very uncomfortable viewing. During World War II, Salò, a town on Lake Garda, became the centre of Mussolini’s last fascist state, from 1943 to 1945. Then there’s the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which the title references, although the film takes place over three days. It all seems relatively innocuous at first. Four men, referred to only by their titles, take a group of teenagers, and then pretty much treat them and all those about them with a complete lack of morals. During a meal, for example, one of the soldiers starts to rape a waitress. There are repeated scenes of a woman telling stories of her past to an audience of the teenagers; sometimes she sings. It’s the end of the film which is most brutal. I’m squeamish, I freely admit it, and I dislike watching horrific scenes in films – in fact, I deal with them best when they’re obviously special effects (ie, pre-CGI). But even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom tested by tolerance for squeam, particularly toward the end when many of the teenagers are physically tortured. Having now seen Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I’m in two minds about the film. It’s a horrible film to watch, but it makes important points. Pasolini was an important director, and his work should be treated accordingly. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, amongst many others, so it’s clearly a film regarded highly by many… I’m glad I watched it, but I’m not so sure I could watch it again. And yet I find myself conflicted over buying the shiny new BFI Blu-ray release…

banishmentThe Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2007, Russia). This is the third Zvyagintsev film I’ve seen, after the earlier The Return and the later Leviathan. So I knew what to expect: glacial pacing, long static takes, close-ups on actors who barely change expression… And I like that sort of stuff, I really do. But for some reason The Banishment seemed like more of a watching ordeal than the other two films by Zvyagintsev I’ve seen. A family travel out into the country to spend time at his childhood home. The wife reveals she is pregnant, but the husband does not believe the baby is his. He forces his wife to have an abortion, but she deliberately overdoses on pain medication afterwards and dies. A flashback reveals that the baby was the husband’s, after all. There’s a subplot involving the husband’s brother, who is a gangster of some sort, and who turns up and then promptly has a heart attack – but there’s not much to it. The cinematography is gorgeous, with some beautiful shots of the Russian countryside (actually, not entirely Russian – The Banishment was filmed in France, Belgium, Moldova and Russia; in fact, the countryside home was built from scratch in Moldova. But never mind: we all know movie geography does not map onto the real world, and that an exterior shot of a building in movieland is not necessarily the location of the following interior shots…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures, #14

These are the last films I watched during 2014 – or at least, the last films I watched worth noting. One or two you might have heard of. As on previous Moving Pictures posts, asterisked titles are on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list.

josephine-and-menJosephine and Men, Roy Boulting (1955, UK). I bunged this on an order from Amazon as a) it was cheap, b) the write-up sounded interesting, and c) I like 1950s films. Unfortunately, it proved less good than expected. The title character is played by Glynis Johns, who was apparently big in her day but was new to me. She plays the sort of woman who is attracted to men in need – fortunately, she comes from a well-off family, so she doesn’t have to suffer while attaching herself to them. Her first is a struggling playwright who, after marrying her, becomes a commercial success, so they retire to the country. Then an old beau who’s a rich and successful investment-something turns up, and apparently his firm has collapsed owing lots of money and his partner has probably done something fraudulent. So Josephine falls for him and… There’s probably a word for these sort of 1950s Brit rom coms, where everyone is terribly-terribly and the women all wear mink coats and you know the men all went to the best schools. It’s all very frothy and no more representative of this country than any contemporary Hollywood film or indeed a present day Conservative Party political broadcast. A film for a wet Sunday afternoon when you can’t be arsed to switch your brain on.

xmendaysX-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer (2014, USA). From what I’d read, I was expecting a twisty-turny plot that was more twisty and turny than a twisty-turny thing. Not quite up to Primer‘s level, but something a bit like, say, Looper. So my expectations were somewhere around the middle, and yet X-Men: Days of Future Past still failed to meet them. There’s no cunning time-paradox plot. The film opens in a future Earth decimated by the Sentinels, and the surviving X-Men use some magic superpower to send Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to prevent the Sentinels from being built. It’s mildly amusing, although perhaps chiefly entertaining for the po-faces pulled by the cast as they speak their ridiculous lines or strut about in their ridiculous costumes. I remember being really impressed with the first X-Men film when I saw it. I’d always had a fondness for the group and used to buy the comic as a kid. (I did try later rereading the Dark Phoenix Saga – I shouldn’t have done. It was shit. Don’t piss on your childhood heroes, keep them safely dry under rose-tinted glass.) Anyway, X-Men: Days of Future Past was I suppose entertaining, but this superhero movie thing, it’s all getting very silly now and I think it should stop.

lastdaysonmarsThe Last Days on Mars, Ruairi Robinson (2013, UK). I sort of feel a very tiny sense of ownership of Mars since I’ve written a novella and several short stories set on the planet’s surface, and I researched them all thoroughly… But seriously, having researched Mars, I’m somewhat sensitive to attempts to portray it realistically – and there have been several attempts. Sort of. Who remembers Red Planet and Mission to Mars? The Last Days on Mars makes a reasonable effort to depict the Martian surface – it was filmed in Jordan, apparently – but the plot is your usual sci-fi cinema nonsense. One of the scientists disobeys orders to go on one last survey – why are astronauts and scientists in films so unprofessional? Seriously, no one’s going to spend billions of dollars putting some maverick prick into space or on another planet. Anyway, said scientist discovers a weird hole in the ground, falls in and gets contaminated by some alien gunk that turns him into a zombie. And it’s contagious! And it’s zombies on Mars! And that’s it!

Les-DiaboliquesLes Diaboliques*, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954, France). The only reason I watched this was because it’s on the 1001 Movies To Watch Before You Die list, but it’s one of those films which proves the worth of such lists. I’d seen another Clouzot earlier in the year, Wages of Fear, which I’d thought good if somewhat over-shadowed by later uses of the same formula. But when I shoved Les Diaboliques into the DVD player, I knew nothing about it. The title promised… Well, pretty much like Wages of Fear, the title promised a different story to that which unfolded as the film progressed. An abused wife of a schoolmaster gets her revenge, with the her husband’s mistress, also a teacher at the school. They drown him in a bath-tub, then roll his body into the school swimming-pool so it looks like an accident, but the body is never discovered… Casting his actual death into doubt. It’s all very cleverly done, but I did think it took a while to get going.

Space-Station-76-2014-R2Space Station 76, Jack Plotnick (2014, USA). A person of my acquaintance encouraged me on Twitter to watch this film by telling me how bad it was, because they quite clearly knew I’d be unable to resist it from their description. In actual fact, it wasn’t quite as bad as advertised, it was just mostly very dull. I can see how someone might have thought the central premise – it’s set on a space station! but like a space station from a bad 1970s sci-fi show! – might have sounded awesome for about, oh, a nanosecond or so. But really, this film should never have been green-lit. I’m having trouble remembering the actual story – in fact, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. Some of the jokes, piss-takes of 1970s sensibilities, were either not funny or borderline offensive. Like the gratuitous nude woman who appears a couple of times. She’s a hallucination by one of the male characters and serves no purpose in the plot. It was all a bit like an episode of one of those 1970s science fiction television shows, where you look away for five minutes, look back and it’s like you never looked away at all except it’s just struck you that you no longer give a fuck what’s happening.

lolaLola*, Jacques Demy (1961, France). I think this is the first Demy I’ve ever watched. When this movie opens with a big American convertible driving around the streets of a French port, the first thing it put me in mind of was Aki Kaurismäki. But then it sort of turns into a Nouvelle Vague drama, with a US sailor who falls for the eponymous singer/dancer in a bar – which looked a bit too wholesome and clean, to be honest – but Lola is still pining for her previous boyfriend, who left seven years before to make his fortune. There’s also an ingenu, who knew Lola as a teenager and bumps into her in the bar where she works. There are one or two musical numbers, which are cleverly integrated into the story. It’s all very charming and not what I was expecting. There was a matter-of-factness, a pragmatism, to Lola, which contrasted well with the various concerns of the supporting cast. By the time the film had finished, I’d decided I’d like to see more films’by Demy… but, of course, only two or three of them are available in the UK. Typical.

element_of_crimeEuropa, Lars von Trier (1991, Denmark). This is the third film in the E-Trilogy box set and it’s so much better than the first, Element of Crime (see here). An American, played by Jean-Marc Barr, visits Germany just after the end of WWII, and gets a job as a sleeping car attendant with the Zentropa train line. (Von Trier later named his production company for the train line.) Germany at this time is suffering due to a crashed economy, blasted infrastructure, demoralised population, heavy-handed and brutal occupiers, pogroms against anyone with Nazi connections, and a group of resistance fighters known as Werewolves. Barr gets involved with the daughter of Zentropa’s owner, and through her becomes embroiled in a plot by the Werewolves to bomb the train on which a new mayor is travelling to his town. Europa consciously mimics the old pulps – and it’s especially interesting comparing it to Kerry Conran’s un fairly-maligned Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow. Europa is B&W, and often superimposes characters and action against blown-up backdrops, something pulp serials often did. Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, on the other hand, was filmed in colour, and used that back-screen technique less. The later film’s plot, however, better suits pulp cinema techniques than does the post-war noir of Europa. So far, I seem to hate one von Trier film and then like the next. Europa definitely falls in the “like” column.

transcendenceTranscendence, Wally Pfister (2014, USA). Johnny Depp is like top of the field in AI research, but he’s sort of at odds with everyone else because, er, because no one in the film actually seems to know what AI is. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer and he hasn’t gone long to live, so he records his consciousness, and his wife and best friend/colleague upload him into his superfast quantum computer. And that sort of gives him god-like powers, not to mention overweening arrogance. And yes, it all pretty much plays out how you’d expect. Actually, bits of this film I liked. I thought the attempt at utopia versus AI-led autocracy made for an interesting story, which, of course, rapidly devolved into a shoot ’em up, but never mind. Depp never really convinced in the, er, title role, but to be honest there’s only a handful of films where he has done – which doesn’t actually make him either a bad actor or one that isn’t entertaining to watch. Transcendence wasn’t anywhere near as smart as it liked to think it was, and while it looked pretty in places, it was still as shiny and glossy and plastic as any Hollywood product. Meh.

realmofsensesIn The Realm of The Senses*, Nagisa Oshima (1976, Japan). This is perhaps chiefly famous for being, well, pornographic. And it is, it really is. I was expecting something typically 18-rated (if that rating still exists), plenty of artfully-framed sex scenes that reveal little but suggest plenty; but it’s not, it’s outright porn. The plot is based on a true story, about a maid at hotel in 1930s Tokyo who enters into an affair with the hotel’s owner.’The affair soon turns obsessive, before eventually ending badly with some consensual, er, bondage. To be honest, I found it all a bit slow and not every engaging. Despite being a period piece, it felt somewhat 1970s. The characters felt a bit flatly drawn and the scenery all looked a little washed out. I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – honest! – but at least now I can cross it off.

athrowofthediceA Throw Of Dice*, Franz Osten (1929, Germany/India). Apparently, in the 1920s and 1930s, Osten made 19 silent films in India – although he was arrested in 1939 as a Nazi and held until the end of the war. Many of his films were based on stories from the Mahabharata, with an Indian cast but mostly German crew. A Throw Of Dice tells the story of two kings who want to marry the same woman. They gamble for her hand, evil king wins, good king becomes his slave. To be honest, I don’t recall a great deal from this film – it’s been a few weeks since I watched it. It’s not especially long for a silent film, and the intertitles were neither too intrusive nor too opaque. It all looked very good, although a hunting scene I recall being a little, er, over-acted. But I’m glad I watched it. I’d watch more by Osten.

guardiansGuardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn (2014, USA). I have a soft spot for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Back in the 1970s, I used to buy the occasional Marvel comic, and when they weren’t X-Men ones, they were usually the anthology UK reprints which included Guardians of the Galaxy. And I quite liked the Guardians – I liked that they were actually science fiction, I thought Star Hawk an interesting character, I liked Vance Astro… Of course, this movie is based on the rebooted Guardians from the mini-series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the early 2000s, although Disney have made a number of changes to the property. Cosmo the telepathic dog is out, although he does make a cameo, Knowhere is not their headquarters but some clichéd lawless frontier place, and the Guardians aren’t actually the Guardians but a group of roguish criminal misfits who sort of band together in adversity and become the Guardians. Which is just fucking nonsense. It would be a bit like the Kray Twins being made police commissioners. It only happens in stupid films. And, er, comics. But the film… It all felt a bit formulaic. New character, quick give us the back-history! There were huge indigestible chunks of exposition. Not to mention lots of things that made no logical sense. A galactic prison. And guards who wander among the prison population carrying powerful firearms. And the watch-tower can sort of detach and turn into a spaceship… except there’s no way out for it to go except the normal entrance. And, of course, prisons normally park inmates’ vehicles in their own parking lot, don’t they. And… why bother? Guardians of the Galaxy was a text-book script-writing in parts, narrative tools that really need to be retired in others, and the usual Hollywood nonsense when it came to world-building or logical story progression. Whatever they’re teaching scriptwriters these days, it’s complete bollocks.

snakepitThe Snake Pit*, Anatole Litvak (1948, USA). The title refers to a ward at a mental institution to which Olivia de Havilland is sectioned (although I don’t think they use that term in the US). De Havilland does legitimately suffer from a mental illness, and a sympathetic doctor eventually uses regression therapy to figure out the event which led to her condition. Which is not to say, of course, that all such conditions are the result of past trauma. The institution was a pretty uncivilised place, with the inmates either treated like criminals or wild animals, most of the staff were stuffed shirts, although the nice doctor and the husband were sympathetic. De Havilland screamed a lot, and it all seemed a bit overwrought in places – but I actually thought it much better than I’d expected. And one scene where de Havilland is interviewed by the staff to see if she’s ready to leave, but a doctor’s wagging finger sets her off, was done well. I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movie list, but I’m glad I watched it.


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Moving pictures, #11

Here’s more of those silvery round things with the moving pictures cunningly encoded on them. To date, I’ve watched 520 of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although many of them I’d seen before I came across the list and decided to make an effort to complete it. (Again, asterisked ones are on the list.)

amourAmour*, Michael Haneke (2012, France) I bought this the moment it was released since I think Haneke is one of the most interesting directors currently making films, but I never actually got around to watching it until recently. I’m not sure why. I think it was perhaps because I’d bounced out of Funny Games the first time I tried to watch it and was afraid I’d do the same with this. I needn’t have worried. A retired couple in Paris, the wife suffers a stroke, and then surgery for a blocked artery goes wrong and leaves her semi-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, the husband finds it increasingly harder to cope. Haneke doesn’t do cheerful films, but this is a completely cheerless one. Good, but not his best.

Tsotsi*, Gavin Hood (2005, South Africa). The title character is a young hoodlum in Soweto who steals a woman’s car, only to discover her baby in the back. He strips the car but keeps the baby, but soon realises he doesn’t know how to look after it. So he terrorises a young woman he sees at a public water pump into helping him. Meanwhile, the police are hunting for the car thief, and Tsoti’s friends have taken up with the local gangster. No one is really likeable in this film, they’re mostly thugs; but Hood manages to make the title character sympathetic. There’s an especially telling scene where he attacks a disabled ex-miner, but then realises that preying on the weak and helpless is no way to live. Worth seeing.

Stachka*, Sergei Eisenstein (1925, Russia). AKA Strike. This is Eisenstein’s first full-length film, made the same year, but before, Battleship Potemkin. It’s pure propaganda, but I was surprised to see how many modern film techniques, such as jump cuts and montages, that Eisenstein uses. The film depicts a strike in a factory in pre-revolutionary Russia, and its suppression by the capitalist owners and tsarist authorities. It’s pretty brutal in places and, sadly, less than a century later, its premise is not one we can consign to the dustbin of history.

Taza, Son Of Cochise, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made a handful of brilliant films, but he also made a lot of crap ones. This is one of the latter although, to be fair, it was slightly better than I expected – and it is subversive for a western as it’s told entirely from the Native American side and it shows them trying to seek peace with the US. Well, not all of them. The title character, played by Rock Hudson, certainly is, he’s trying to stick to the treaty his father signed, and he even becomes the first officer of the “Indian police”. But one of the other members of the tribe is not so willing to bend over backwards – the Americans have forced the tribe to move onto a reservation, for example – and kicks off a rebellion. The film’s heart may be in the right place, but it’s hard to ignore that so many of the cast are whites playing Native Americans.

zero_theoremThe Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam (2013, UK). It’s been a while since Gilliam made a film that blew me away – in fact the last few have been pretty lacklustre, and I think his most interesting piece in the last two decades has been a documentary on his failed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. The Zero Theorem has been called a return to form, a phrase which always make me suspicious. I’ve seen mostly positive reviews of the film, which, unfairly, had led me to expect something as good as his earlier masterpieces. It’s not. The metaphor used for the “entity crunching” doesn’t make much sense and Bainsley feels like the sort of character only a dirty old man would think is necessary. But David Thewlis plays his part well, and Matt Damon’s wardrobe is quite amusing.

The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie*, Luis Buñuel (1972, France). This is one of the those films that slowly sucks you into its somewhat off-kilter world. It starts unremarkably enough: two couples turn up to another couple’s house for a planned dinner party, only to discover they’ve got the wrong day and the husband is away that night. So they take the wife to a nearby auberge with a good reputation, but it’s closed. They persuade the maître d to let them – only to learn the proprietor died that day, which is why the restaurant is closed. The film then follows the three couples as they arrange other dinner parties, including one with a contingent of military officers, a party that turns into a play on a stage… and it all becomes increasingly surreal as the film progresses. I had not expected to like this film as much as I did.

Lady For A Day, Frank Capra (1933, USA). Capra later remade this in 1961 as Pocketful Of Miracles, with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford – that was, in fact, Capra’s last feature film. An old woman who sells apples on the street to make ends meet has a daughter she gave away when young and who is now living in Spain. And who now wants her aristocratic Spanish fiancé to meet her mother who, she believes, is well-to-do and lives in a posh hotel. Fortunately, a local gangster considers the old woman is his good luck charm and is happy to help out. So they turn the old woman into the “lady” her daughter believes her to be, rent a big penthouse and organise a big bash… but it doesn’t go quite according to plan. Fortunately, everything works out… The very definition of a feel-good film.

Ponyo, Hiyao Miyazaki (2008, Japan). I find many of the Studio Ghibli films unbearably twee and this one is little different. The title character is a magical fish, who falls in love with a young boy who captures her and so returns to land as a young girl. So it’s basically The Little Mermaid. But Ponyo’s father is not happy, not just with her betrayal but with the humans’ pollution of the ocean. Happily Ponyo’s mother, the Goddess of Mercy, saves the day.

Sansho_Dayu_DVDSansho Dayu*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan). Feudal Japan, and a manorial estate managed by the titular character has a slave labour force, among which are the children of a disgraced governor. Once the children reach adulthood, they manage to escape – at least the man does, the woman gives herself up to distract their pursuers. The young man goes looking for his mother, who was sold into slavery elsewhere. En route, he runs into his old mentor, who gives him a letter to prove his identity as he wants to appeal to the Chief Advisor. After proving his bona fides, the young man is made governor of the province containing the manor which Sansho manages. The young man tells Sansho he is outlawing slavery, Sansho retaliates, but the young governor’s soldiers prevail. Slow, but affecting.

Brüno, Larry Charles (2009, USA). If I thought Sacha Baron Cohen playing Borat in redneck country, USA, was stupidly dangerous, then playing Brüno, a camp and very dim fashionista, in Jerusalem is, well, I’m surprised he got out alive. And I certainly hope the interview with the terrorist group leader was faked. Other parts clearly weren’t – especially those where he interviews celebrities after moving to LA. Much like the earlier film, there were some moments of comic genius – the velcro suit was classic; some of the cinema verité parts were scary; and other bits weren’t so good. Although I did think it held together better overall than Borat.

The Lost Weekend*, Billy Wilder (1945, USA). Ray Milland is such an alkie he hangs his bottles of whisky out of the window on a piece of string so his brother doesn’t find them. Or his girlfriend, Jane Wyman, for that matter. Milland claims to be a writer but he’s not written a word. When his brother leaves him alone in the flat for a weekend, he finds the money left to pay the housekeeper, and goes on a binge. I’m completely mystified as to why this is considered a classic, it was pure temperance propaganda, and so overwrought I’m surprised Milland’s liver didn’t spontaneously explode. I don’t think Lowry need have worried about this movie, his novel is hugely superior.

imposterThe Imposter, Bart Layton (2012, UK). In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy disappeared from a Texas town. Three years later, a teenager in Spain claimed to be that boy, and the family flew him to the US and welcomed him into their home as their missing son – even though this teenager spoke with a French accent, was seven years older than the missing boy, and had brown eyes and dark hair instead of blue eyes and blond hair. It took a suspicious private investigator to realise something was wrong. The teenager turned out to be a con man, who had been impersonating other children for years. A very odd documentary, it’s quite astonishing the family were blind to the differences – although, as a few in the film suggest, they might have been keen to welcome the imposter to hide the fact they murdered the missing boy.

Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan). I hadn’t planned on watching this, as I hadn’t actually put it on my rental list. But it was part of a double set with Sansho Dayu, and I only discovered this when I received the disc and thought, hang on, I don’t remember this one… And, after all that, I enjoyed it more than I did Sansho Dayu. A teenage girl has left her uncle, who was supposed to look after her but instead tried abusing her, and instead up at an okiya and asks the geisha, a friend of her late mother, to take her on as an apprentice. The geisha initially refuses, but then agrees after getting a loan for the cost of tuition from her old tutor. But when the teenager, shortly after graduating from geisha school, fights off a client, it jeopardises an important business deal and she and the geisha are ostracised. Set just after WW2, the Japan depicted is on the cusp of change – the okiya and the geishas are traditional, but most of the men wear Western clothing and are involved in engineering. Really enjoyed this one.

failsafeFail-Safe, Sidney Lumet (1964, USA). This film was adapted from the novel of the same title, which also inspired Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, and was released in the same year as Kubrick’s film. An unidentified plane crosses the DEW line, fighters are sent to intercept – these are the days of SAGE, by the way – and squadrons of “Vindicator” bombers head off to their rendezvous points to await the order to attack the USSR with their nuclear bombs. The UFO proves to be an off-course airliner, but the stand-down message gets garbled when sent to one of the Vindicator squadrons. Which promptly heads for Soviet airspace at supersonic speeds to drop an atom bomb on Moscow. The US president is understandably upset at this, and the USSR premier is understandably sceptical that this is actually a horrible accident. WW3 must be averted. The film was all a bit intense, Walter Matthau’s hawkish political advisor character was annoying, the Vindicator bombers were actually B-58 Hustlers… which meant the interior shots of their cockpits was all wrong… And, well, I can understand why Dr Strangelove was more successful.


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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.


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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.


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readings & watchings 2011 #1

A month into the year, more or less, and so time for some more filler in lieu of proper content. Here are the books I’ve read and the films I’ve seen…

Books
The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010). Dear me, how much did they spend on this? Nearly $4 million for the trilogy? No wonder it’s been hyped to buggery. Was it worth the money? Sadly, no. The first third is very good indeed, but then the book bogs down badly, and never quite recovers. Further, everything in it is just far too familiar, there’s almost nothing that’s new. And those borrowings are entirely from films – in no way does The Passage build on earlier vampire or post-apocalyptic written works. It’s like watching a “That’s Showbusiness” compilation, one that’s been extended to last most of the day. I can understand the book selling well – it would be strange if it hadn’t, given all the money spent on marketing it – but I’m puzzled by its inclusion on so many best of the year lists. Did I miss the memo? Was I not concentrating when we all decided as a genre that recycling tired old clichés from movies was preferable to new, innovative ideas? I wrote a bit about The Passage here.

Genesis, Bernard Beckett (2006), I recall hearing good things about a couple of years ago. But at the time the book proved somewhat elusive. Recently, it re-appeared in a very cheap edition, so I bought a copy. It’s a not a novella, it’s a YA novel. And a thin one at that. I hated it. It’s framed as the oral examination of a candidate for the Academy, the ruling elite of an island nation which is all that remains after a plague has devastated the Earth. The first few questions of this exam are effectively, “explain the world of this story to the reader so they can follow what little plot the book possesses”. We then get pages of badly-disguised info-dumps, in which the character speaks not in dialogue but in descriptive prose. There’s an interesting twist at the end, the writing is mostly very good, the book presents complex ideas in an easily-digestible fashion, but it’s all been done before and it’s so clumsily-structured it’s almost embarrassing to read.

0.4, Mike Lancaster (2011), I actually read for review for Interzone, but it proved unsuitable as it’s aimed at eleven-year-olds. It’s another sf novel which references film and television, but not the written form. So nothing in it seems especially original. Still, I wasn’t the target audience, so it’s no surprise I found it unsatisfactory.

The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989), was the first book of this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Music for Another World, Mark Harding (2010), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles. My review is here.

Spreading My Wings, Diana Barnato Walker (2003), I read for research for a story I was writing. Barnato Walker was an early British aviatrix – she learnt to fly between the wars, and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary when it was formed during World War II. Later, she flew a BAC Lightning and became the first British woman to pilot an aircraft through the Sound Barrier. Spreading My Wings, despite the somewhat naff title, is a fascinating read. Barnato Walker’s voice is engaging, she has a remarkable memory for details, and she led an interesting life.

The Sodom and Gomorrah Business, Barry N Mazlberg (1974), in which Malzberg attempts to channel JG Ballard and fails. I know Malzberg was a mainstay of the US New Wave (take note: not the New Wave, which was British, but the US movement of the same name it inspired; the US New Wave needs that qualifying “US” to distinguish it from the original (British) New Wave). The Sodom and Gomorrah Business would happily have fitted into either movement on each side of the Atlantic, although I suspect it’s closer to the UK side in tone and implementation. At some indefinite point in the near-ish future, two young men from an institute which produces mercenaries play hooky and visit the nearby post-apocalyptic city. They’re captured by “savages”, who prove to be not quite as uncivilised as advertised, and one is forced into leading them in an attack on the institution. Which is run entirely by robots, who are themselves running down. It’s all very hip and nihilistic, but the prose can’t quite carry it.

Spacesuits, Amanda Young (2009), is about, well, spacesuits – specifically the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s collection. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Sylvow, Douglas Thompson (2010), I reviewed for Interzone instead of 0.4. Thompson could be a name to watch, if this is any indication. Weirdly, the name of the publisher of Sylvow, Eibonvale Press, appears nowhere on this book, not even on the spine.

First on the Moon, Jeff Sutton (1958), is Sutton’s debut novel and its title pretty much tells you the plot. It’s all manly men of America and dastardly Russkies, pure pulp from start to finish, and not especially scientifically accurate, despite the author being an aviation journalist. I plan to review it on my Space Books blog.

Reflections from Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott (2005), is the short, copiously-illustrated autobiography of an astronaut who flew on two Shuttle missions. A review of it will appear on my Space Books blog soon.

Films
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Series 6 (1997). So only one season left and I’ll have seen the lot. I’ve heard it said by many, and I was starting to believe it myself, that Deep Space Nine is the best of the Trek franchises. But, oh dear, they plumbed the depths in this season. The war with the Dominion was getting interesting, although the Vorta Weyoun is really irritating. But they resolved the war – at least as it pertains to Deep Space Nine itself – by retaking the station in one of the crappiest-looking and unconvincing space battles in Trek history. Other episodes tried hard for interesting themes, but only proved embarrassingly bad. The student crew of a battleship behind enemy lines, for example. The writers aimed for pathos, missed, and hit bathos. The episode where Quark changes sex in order to help Grand Nagus Zek back into power was cringe-inducing. The Ferengi are cringe-inducing, anyway. Who thought comedy Shylocks was a good idea? Even the better episodes in this season can’t compare with earlier seasons – O’Brian makes an unconvincing undercover cop, and the reason why he was recruited is never satisfactorily explained; the super-secret Section 31 seems completely antithetical to the philosophy of Trek; and the episodes set in the Vegas show-lounge on the holodeck just seemed really cheap. Let’s hope the final season is better.

State Of The Union, dir. Frank Capra (1948). I don’t know why Capra gets so much stick. I really enjoyed It’s A Wonderful Life, and Lost Horizon is a pretty good film. I suppose Capra was one of your original “Hollywood liberals”, and so it’s become the fashion to sneer at his output. And it’s true that State Of The Union doesn’t map onto modern US politics – and probably didn’t map onto US politics of 1948, either. Spencer Tracy plays a self-made millionaire – an aircraft manufacturer, of course – who is persuaded to run for high office. He’s estranged from his wife, played by Katherine Hepburn, but in order to secure the Republican nomination, they need to pretend to be happily wed. Cue much rapid-fire screwball rom com banter, and an eventual happy ending. By all accounts, Capra’s film stripped out much of the wit in the original play, written by Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsay. Perhaps it’s true that Capra’s films can be a little anodyne – even the politics espoused in State Of The Union is a combination of common-sense and light Hollywood liberalism. As a satire on American politics, the film has little bite. But then, I suspect it was never intended to. The title may reference the president’s annual speech, but it’s the union between Tracy and Hepburn which has precedence in the film. Capra’s reputation may have tarnished somewhat over the years, but he still made entertaining, enjoyable films… which was not always true of his contemporaries.

A Winter’s Tale, dir. Éric Rohmer (1992), is the second of Rohmer’s Contes quatre saison. Félicie fell in love with Charles while on holiday, but stupidly gave him the wrong address by mistake when the holiday ended. As he was heading off to the US, she had no way of contacting him… or of telling him that he was now the father of a daughter. Five years pass. Félicie is a hairdresser in Paris, sleeping with both Maxence, owner of the salon where she works, and librarian Loïc. But she still loves  Charles. Maxence persuades her to move with him Nevers, to live with him and work in the salon he is opening there. She agrees. But she’s unable to settle down with Maxence – she can’t love him the way she loves Charles – so she returns to Paris… and entirely coincidentally bumps into Charles on a bus. So they get back together. Like the first film of the quartet, A Tale Of Springtime (see here), this is a quiet, slow but deep study of its characters – especially Félicie. She’s not especially likable – Loïc loves her, but she’s clearly not his intellectual equal and it’s hard to determine what she gets from her relationship with him. Maxence, at least, makes for a more understandable partner for her, but even then she fails to understand his expectations. Félicie comes across as a spoilt dreamer… but then Rohmer allows her dream to come true. As a result, the film lacks any real resolution.

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, dir. Chris Columbus (2010), is based on a popular YA fantasy series, just like the Harry Potter films. And just like the Harry Potter films, it’s about a teenager who discovers he is not an ordinary person, but has special powers. Even more so, just like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson’s powers are more special than those of the other kids with special powers. This because he is a son of Poseidon. When someone steals Zeus’ lightning bolt, everyone suspects Percy Jackson, although he has been happily living the life of a mundane, unaware of his special Harry-Potter-like powers. This abrupt eruption of Greek godly adventure into his life, he takes with aplomb, a readiness to learn how to use his special powers, and a beady eye for a feisty young woman. The Greek pantheon is cleverly integrated into this Harry Potter clone – it is, at least, a bit more original than Jennings Goes to Wizard School – but it still feels like by-the-numbers for a target audience. Good special effects, though.

From Here To Eternity, dir. Fred Zinnemann (1953), is one of those classic 1950s films everyone knows of. Well, there’s that iconic scene with Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling about and snogging in the surf. In fact, that was pretty much all I knew about the film. That, and Frank Sinatra was in it and won an Oscar for best supporting actor. So I was somewhat surprised to discover that it’s not really about Lancaster’s character, but about the one played by Montgomery Clift. And it’s about boxing – or rather, not boxing – in the US Army. It’s also set in Hawaii, in the year leading up to Pearl Harbour. Clift plays a bugler who has transferred to a rifle company on Oahu. He used to be a boxer, and was very good at it, but gave up when he blinded a friend during a sparring bout. The rifle company’s CO, however, won’t take no for an answer, and instructs his NCOs to begin a campaign of harassment and bullying until Clift agrees to box. Lancaster, the first sergeant, a man’s man and a soldier’s soldier, disagrees with his CO, and does his best to make sure Clift comes to no real harm. Meanwhile, Lancaster has also fallen in love with his CO’s wife, Kerr, which is a definite no-no in the armed forces. Sinatra plays Clift’s buddy in the barracks, who’s a bit of a chancer and introduces Clift to the Oahu night-life. To be honest, Lancaster should have got the Oscar – he’s the best thing in the entire film. It’s also bizarre that the film never mentions the war taking place elsewhere on the planet… until it abruptly intrudes in the final quarter of the film. I suspect there was a better film to be made of From Here To Eternity‘s script, because this one feels too ordinary for much of its length to justify the eight Oscars it won. A classic, then, but not a great classic.

George And The Dragon, dir. Tom Reeve (2004), I reviewed for the Zone here.

The Secret In Their Eyes, dir. Juan José Campanella (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

The Seventh Continent, dir. Michael Haneke (1989), was Haneke’s debut film, and is apparently inspired by a true story. A young Austrian couple, solidly middle-class, with a young daughter; she works and co-owns an opthalmic practice, he’s an engineer at a chemical plant. Haneke shows us a day in their life – troubles at work, dull routine, a voice-over reading out a letter from the wife to her mother-in-law. We then see another similar day a year later. Some things have changed for the better, some for the worse. But their life together is still mostly comfortable. In the final part of the film, the couple tell all their friends and relatives they are emigrating to Australia. They empty their bank accounts, sell their half of the opthalmic practice, and spend all their money on a massive feast. They then smash everything in their house. Finally, they commit suicide. No reason is given for them taking their lives, and nothing is presented in the first two parts of the film which might explain it. So, right from the start Haneke was making films which defied easy explanation, which did not adhere to the usual rules of film narrative. Last year, I bought the Michael Haneke Collection DVD set, which contains Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time Of The Wolf and Hidden. Annoyingly, Artificial Eye have now brought out the Michael Haneke Anthology DVD set, which contains ten of his films – all but The White Ribbon, in fact. And including the four I already own. Bah.

Laputa – Castle In The Sky, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1986), is the second of Studio Ghibli’s film, which I am slowly working my way through (though I’ve seen several of the later ones). There’s lots in here that’s common to Miyazaki’s films – the feisty young girl, the bizarre steampunk-ish aesthetic, the teenage boy sidekick, a world recovering from a past unexplained catastrophe, a focus on a simple life-style, and a villain with a moustache… In the world of Laputa – Castle In The Sky, there used to be flying cities, but most have gone – all except Laputa, which is now considered near-mythical. Sheeta escapes from Colonel Muska when pirates, led by their mother Dola, attack the airship carrying her. She is found by Puza, who agrees to help her. The chase is on – both Muska and Dola after Sheeta and Puza. But it turns out Dola and her piratical sons are actually the good guys, and with their help Sheeta and Puza find the lost flying city of Laputa. Which is what Muska was after – or rather, its fabulous technology. But only Sheeta and Puza hold the secret to the city. Entertaining, with some lovely visuals, but the plot is a little too familiar and doesn’t quite hang together in a couple of places.

Certified Copy, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2010), I reviewed for VideoVista here.