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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.

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Moving pictures, #15

And it’s back to movies, with the usual somewhat eclectic collection of viewing. As usual, films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are asteriskificated.

mapstothestarsMaps to the Stars, David Cronenberg (2014, Canada). Ah, movies about people who make movies, people who make millions for very little work, who live lives of wealth and privilege and think people actually give a shit about them. And that’s pretty much Maps to the Stars, which focuses on a Hollywood family – there’s a famous TV shrink, the son is the child star of a very profitable franchise, the mother manages the son, and the daughter… Well, the story is really about the daughter, who was institutionalised elsewhere after a past arson attempt… but now she’s back in town. And being drove around by Robert Pattinson. There’s also a fading actress, who’s trying to land the lead role in a remake of her mother’s most famous film, and is having a somewhat unemotional affair with the TV shrink. Oh, and the son is trying hang onto his role after a stint in rehab and a co-star who gets all the best lines. I like metafiction because it’s about the mechanics of fiction, but films about film-making mostly seem to focus on the frankly unlikable personalities who profit from the successes of the movie industry. It’s a bit like the US equivalent of Downton Abbey. Admittedly, this is Cronenberg – and you expect something more from him than just another inward-looking Hollywood-movie-about-Hollywood, populated with a cast where it’s impossible to tell who is the more self-involved – the characters or the actors playing them. And true, Cronenberg throws in some minor weirdness to leaven the unremitting rich-people-problems, but it’s not really enough. Even claims that the film recapitulates in allegorical form the decline of Western civilisation seems like one of those feeble excuses five-year-olds are prone to come out with when found in the presence of an expensive broken vase.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA/France). Top of the list of films that were never made is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It only survives in numerous pieces of concept art – although given the artists, Moebius, Chris Foss, Giger, it’s no wonder it survives – and six “bibles” produced by the French production company in order to sell the project to Hollywood studios while drumming up finance. Jodorowsky still has a copy, but it’s not known what happened to the others. Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of the film, which reached a much further point in preproduction than I’d thought, and was only scuppered because Hollywood was unwilling to entrust it to Jodorowsky. But I’ve always believed it would have been a magnificent piece of cinema, and this documentary only reinforces that belief. Perhpas the most fascinating part of the film – and it’s a close call as the damn thing is fascinating throughout – is where it shows the impact Jodorowsky’s project had on subsequent science fiction films. It’s not just that his “team” – O’Bannon, Foss, Giger, Moebius, etc – went on to work on other films, but also that elements of his storyboard ended up in completely unrelated sf movies. Sadly, Jodorowsky’s Dune is only available as Region A Blu-ray, but it does include a Region 1 DVD – so you might as well get it anyway. Because it’s totally worth it.

ossessioneOssessione*, Luchino Visconti (1943, Italy). An early piece of Italian neorealist cinema, if not the first film labelled as such. I am not a huge fan of Italian neorealist films, although I love a number of Italian movies (especially those by Antonioni); nor is Visconti among my front rank of directors. I suspect Ossessione is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because of its position as the first Italian neorealist film, because in most other respects it’s relatively ordinary. A tramp finds work at a provincial restaurant, has an affair with the owner’s wife, and the two of them plot to kill her husband. But he dies accidentally… but the boyfriend still ends up going down for it. It’s apparently based on Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Which I know I’ve not read, but I might have seen one of the film adaptations…

nowyouseemeNow You See Me, Louis Leterrier (2013, USA/France). The charity shop were doing a buy-one-get-one-free offer, so I went for this one although I really don’t like glossy Hollywood thrillers at all. Admittedly, the elevator pitch did sound intriguing: a group of illusionists pull off a series of bank robberies. Having now seen Now You See Me, I dislike glossy Hollywood thrillers even more. Jesse Eisenberg proves once again he has as much onscreen charisma as a dead badger, not to mention a talent for playing characters you’d swerve to run over if you saw them crossing the street. The remainder of the cast are pretty much standard for the type of film, the elevator pitch – illusionists! making the crimes! – is spoiled by the illusions clearly being the result of CGI trickery (except, of course, for those that are “explained”), and it’s all as slick and unmemorable as a cheap supermarket kagool. Avoid.

keeperThe Keeper Of Lost Causes, Mikkel Nørgaard (2013, Denmark). My mother is a fan of Alder-Olsen’s novels, and when I spotted this film adaptation of his debut in a charity shop, I decided to give it a go. It’s a Nordic crime thriller, which pretty much hits all the clichés, opening with a police raid that goes badly wrong and in which only our brooding Nordic detective escapes uninjured. But not unscathed. After a medical leave of absence, he’s given a makework job, closing cold cases in Department Q. But not apparently closing cases – he’s not supposed to solve them, just mark them as unsolved and archive them. Or something. But the first one he picks, he decides to solve. A woman disappeared on a ferry, and the death was marked down as suicide, even though the woman had shown no suicidal tendencies. Nordic detective, however, with the help of faithful sidekick of Arab extraction, is made of sufficiently stern stuff to ignore any complaints or threats from his boss, and proves the woman is still alive! In a saturation system! Built in a barn by a nutter! Apparently, checking off every Nordic crime trope wasn’t enough, the makers of this film also had to get the hyperbaric element completely wrong. I can’t speak for the books, but this film adaptation is distinctly unimpressive.

fireworksFireworks Wednesday, Asghar Farhadi (2006, Iran). Some of the best films I’ve seen over the past few years have been from Iran, and Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly is one of the best of those. So I made an effort to seek out some of his earlier films. The title of this one refers to New Year’s Day, when fireworks are let off as part of the celebrations; but it could also be seen as a reference to the internal dynamics of the family at the centre of the story. A young woman about to be wed gets a temporary job cleaning the flat of a family who had have just had it repainted but are now apparently off to Dubai for a short holiday. Except relations between husband and wife are not at their best… because she suspects him of having an affair with a divorcee who runs a beauty salon in their block of apartments. Both husband and wife enlist the young woman in their attempts to prove their suspicions – but that’s all beside the point as Fireworks Wednesday is more of a character protrait of the wife than anything else, and it’s superbly done. Farhadi may be a less formally experimental director than Kiarostami, but he is nonetheless a world-class talent. Seek out all his films and watch them.

orientalelegyOriental Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1996, Russia/Japan). Unfortunately, I have yet to source a copy of this DVD (which actually comprises three films), but I did find a copy of ‘Oriental Elegy’ on Youtube with subtitles. So I downloaded it to a USB drive and watched it on my telly. The quality was… not the best. Although given that this is one of Sokurov’s “elegies”, and his propensity for post-production visual effects, that’s perhaps not so much of an issue. I would seriously like to see  – and own – a decent copy of this. It’s fairly typical for Sokurov, a meditation on life and death prompted by a traveller’s visit to a strange Japanese town, where he listens to the testimonies of various people, amd where distorted cinematography helps illustrate the words spoken by the traveller in voice over. Like most Sokurov films, I’m going to have to watch this a number of times to figure it out. Now that’s value for money…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 595