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Movie roundup 2020, #2

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

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

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 Given the amount of time that’s passed since the film’s release, it’s perhaps safest to view it as an historical document – it’s still racist, and still offensive, but structurally, and production-wise, it’s also very much a Disney film of its time.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Readings & Watchings 5

Time to look in the bucket once again after another shift at the coalface of culture. You know how this works…

Books
The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (2006), was March’s book for my 2010 Reading Challenge. I reviewed it here.

A White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper, which comprises The Road to Corlay (1978), A Dream of Kinship (1981) and A Tapestry of Time (1982). These are set at the turn of the fourth millennium, a thousand years after global warming resulted in great floods, and the UK is an archipelago of seven kingdoms. Technology has fallen back to roughly mediaeval level, and a militant church runs much of the UK. Peter, a travelling story-teller, takes Tom, a young piper, to York to enroll him in the Minster school, but Tom is not all he seems. If he’s not the prophesied White Bird, then he is its prophet… Some years later, Tom’s death has resulted in a new religion, Kinship. A man is found floating in the sea off the island of Quantock (what were the Quantock Hills near Taunton), and put in the care of Jane, a potter’s daughter, who is huesh (she can see the future). Meanwhile, one thousand years earlier, Dr Mike Carver is in a coma following an experiment. Somehow he’s trapped in the mind of Thomas of Norwich, the man being cared for by Jane. The Road to Corlay, as the title suggests, covers the origin of the Kinship religion. By the second book, A Dream of Kinship, it’s reasonably well-established, albeit still a minority religion and considered heretical by Christianity. It’s also morphing into Christianity – accreting the creed and ceremony of the church it’s replacing. The story is told through Tom, son of Jane and Thomas of Norwich, as he grows up and studies at the religion’s centre, Corlay on the Isle of Brittany. The Christian Church plans to safeguard its stranglehold on the Seven Kingdoms by seizing control, but Tom manages to prevent this happening in the First Kingdom. In the final book, A Tapestry of Time, the parallels between Kinship’s history and Christianity’s history have become more marked. Tom travels about Europe with his girlfriend Witchet as an itinerant musician. There’s nasty incident in the French Alps, and Tom gives up on Kinship. But events lead him back to it – but in opposition to Brother Francis, who is Kinship’s St Paul. The final section of the book is set 800 years later, as two Oxford dons in a faux-Victorian/Edwardian English society, are “helped” to uncover the original Kinship, and not the church that has grown up around it. Again, Cowper’s clearly riffing off Pauline Christianity. They’re good books these three – well-written and interesting science fiction. Perhaps it’s a little implausible that British society would culturally repeat itself after the Drowning when the icecaps melted – mediaeval in 3000 AD, Victorian 800 years later. But that’s a minor quibble – Cowper makes it work.

The Lemur, Benjamin Black (2008). Black is better known as John Banville. This is the pseudonym he uses when he’s writing thrillers. Although, to be honest, The Lemur was not exactly a thrilling read. John Glass is an ex-reporter who married into a rich family. His father-in-law asks him to write a biography, so he hires a researcher, who Glass dubs “The Lemur” as he thinks he resembles one. A couple of days later, the researcher tries to blackmail Glass, and is subsequently murdered. Glass is worried that the murderer was his father-in-law, an ex-CIA telecoms billionaire, whose riches he resents (even while being kept by them). The Lemur isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more of a character portrait of Glass. A quick read, but not a bad one.

The Magus, John Fowles (1977), I wasn’t expecting to finish so quickly – it’s a fat book: 656 pages in my Vintage paperback edition. But Fowles is an amazingly readable writer, which is one reason why I like his fiction so much. In The Magus, Nicholas Urfe accepts a position as teacher at a boarding school on the invented Greek island of Phraxos. There, he meets Maurice Conchis, a millionaire who owns a villa on the island. Conchis involves Urfe in a series of psychological games – few of which appear to make much sense. And that’s part of the appeal of The Magus: the promise that Conchis’s “experiments” on Urfe, the situations he devises, will be explained. And yet what little explanation does eventually come – when the motive is finally revealed – it stretches credulity. Urfe is also an unsympathetic narrator: he’s crass and arrogant. Conchis is little better, full of aphorisms that don’t submit to scrutiny. If Fowles’ Mantissa was a dirty old man’s book, then The Magus is definitely a young man’s book. Fowles himself describes it in the introduction to this 1977 revised edition as a “novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent”. Which is a bit harsh. It’s not as amazing a novel as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or as good as A Maggot, and it’s probably a book best read when young; but neither is it not a very good book.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928), surprised me. Obviously, I’m aware of Lawrence’s reputation but, given that my read of another highly-regarded author from the 1920s hadn’t been entirely successful (see here), I’d expected Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be a bit of a slog. Early indications were not good. The narrative opened very much as a story told to the reader, with no effort made to disguise its nature as a work of fiction – no attempt at immersion, in other words. The dialogue didn’t help either – too! many! exclamation marks! But then – and weirdly this echoed an identical moment in Pascale Ferran’s film adaptation of the book (see here) – the story seemed to settle down, and Lawrence pulled out some lovely writing about the countryside around Wragby, the Chatterley ancestral home in Derbyshire. Then the characters of Constance and Mellors began to gain depth, proving far more complex and rounded than I’d expected from the film adaptations I’d seen. In fact, they were very much unlike their cinematic counterparts. I was also amused to see my birth town of Mansfield described as “that once-romantic, now utterly disheartening colliery town” since I can’t imagine it ever having been romantic. I was going to put this book up on readitswapit.co.uk once I’d read it, but I’m going to hang on to it instead. It’s definitely worth a reread. And I think I’ll read me some more Lawrence as well at some point.

Majestrum, Matthew Hughes (2006), is another Vanceian tale from an author who has built a career out of writing Vanceian tales. This is no bad thing. Jack Vance is a singular talent, but Hughes has come the closest of anyone to emulating him – and, on occasion, even doing better perhaps. I’ve enjoyed other Hughes novels – I reviewed one, Template, for Interzone – but I wasn’t as keen on Majestrum. Like those others of his I’ve read, it’s set in Hughes’ Archonate universe, but it focuses on Henghis Hapthorn, a “discriminator” (sort of a private investigator). He’s recruited by Lord Arfe to uncover the background of the man wooing the aristocrat’s daughter. This then proves linked to a conspiracy directed at the Archon. And it’s all to do with a past age of magic trying to subvert the current age of reason. There are some really nice touches in Majestrum, and Hughes’s prose is very much like Vance’s… but I was put off a little by the mix of sf and magic.

Films
For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I should really do a proper review of this for my Space Books blog (and the same for In The Shadow Of The Moon too, which I also own). In fact, I think I will. So keep an eye open there for it.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, dir. David Fincher (2008), was one of those films remarked on more on for a technical achievement than for anything else. Mind you, it was enough to see it nominated at the 2009 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Costume, Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects. It won Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects. Because, well, that’s all that’s really remarkable about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. In it, Brad Pitt plays the title character, who ages backwards. He’s born an old man (but baby-sized), and grows younger as he, er, ages. It’s based on a story by F Scott Fitzgerald. It’s also a “homily film”, sort of like Forrest Gump – you know, a life story in which someone learns a series of life lessons of the type which are found in fortune cookies or self-help books with asinine titles. The film looked really good, and the getting-younger-while-getting-older effect was cleverly done. Which is no doubt why it took the Oscars it did.

Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, and The Chamber Of Secrets, and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and The Goblet Of Fire, dir. various hands (2001 – 2005). I read the first book many years ago and thought it remarkably ordinary. But I’d never seen the films. Despite the fact they’ve been on telly zillions of times. So I bagged cheap copies off eBay, and sat and watched them and… they’re not very good, are they? In those first two, the acting is definitely poor. The game of Quidditch makes no sense; nor does it feel like the sort of game that would be played at a public school. Things gets introduced into the world, with no back-story, just when they appear in the plot, which itself is nothing wildly original. Yes, the third film, Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, is better than the preceding two, but that’s no great achievement. The fourth film isn’t bad either, and is probably the best-plotted of the four. Mind you, its plot is a straightforward quest: win the competition! Anyway, I’ve seen them now. And the DVDs will be going back onto eBay.

Summer Hours, dir. Oliver Assayas (2008), is the fifth film by Assayas I’ve seen and, I think, the best one so far. It’s a French family drama. Two brothers and a sister – one brother lives in Paris, the other in Shanghai, and the sister in New York – meet up each summer. But then their mother dies, and circumstances preclude any future annual get-togethers, so they must pack up their mother’s house and the childhood memories they have of the place. A well-acted, well-scripted ensemble piece. Recommended.

Alien Hunter, dir. Ron Krauss (2003). James spader must be a science fiction fan. How else to explain all the crap sf films he appears in? He can’t be that desperate for work. In this one, an alien object is found under the ice in Antarctica, and taken to a corporate research facility on the continent. Spader, a cryptologist who used to work for SETI, is sent to investigate. But there’s an alien creature inside the object, and it breaks out and infects everyone with an alien virus which causes death in a matter of seconds. They should have titled the film Alien Rip-Off as there’s nothing original about the story. Best avoided.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, dir. Gavin Hood (2009). So, after watching the three X-Men films, you thought you knew how Wolverine became like he is? Wrong. The title sequence to X-Men Origins: Wolverine is pretty good, showing Wolverine and his brother, Sabretooth, fighting in various wars. After an incident during the Vietnam War, the two are recruited by Colonel Stryker for his mutant task force, Team X. But Wolverine falls out with Stryker, and walks away. Some time later, his brother tracks him down, and kills his fiancée. Wolverine subsequently submits to have his skeleton coated with adamantium by Stryker, as only then will he be strong enough to kill Sabretooth. But it was all a cunning plot by Stryker in the first place… I thought the film was supposed to take place during the late 1960s / early 1970s, but you’d never have known from the production design. The film’s all a bit meh, possibly because Wolverine just isn’t an interesting enough character to carry a film on his own, and the supporting cast are pretty dull.

Top Hat, dir. Mark Sandrich (1936), is another one from one of those Top 100 Films lists – although I forget which list. Fred Astaire really was an odd-looking bloke. His head is a peculiar shape. And he had a horribly insipid singing voice. But, as was famously said, he “can dance a little”. This is arguably his best film which, to be honest, doesn’t say a great deal for his other films (and he made thirty-one). In Top Hat, Fred fancies Ginger, a friend of the wife of his producer. So he stalks her. Then she gets confused and thinks that Fred is his producer – i.e., married to her friend. The wife is not surprised that her husband is pursuing Ginger, and so the two plot to teach him a lesson. Except, of course, it’s not the producer, but Fred. The situation is well-handled and amusing, but the clomping wit leaves something to be desired. The musical numbers are everything you’d expect. Entertaining, but definitely rough around the edges.

Maroc 7, dir. Gerry O’Hara (1967), I watched for a review for VideoVista.

The Magus, dir. Guy Green (1968), I watched again after finishing the book (see above). Michael Caine has described the film as the worst he ever worked on because no one knew what it was about. Fowles wrote the screenplay himself, and he made changes to the story. Changing Alison, an Australian, into Anne, who is French, was, I imagine, necessary after Anna Karina was cast in the part. Other alterations were more substantial. The twins June and Judy (AKA Rose and Lily) have become a single person (played by Candice Bergen). Many of the games Conchis plays on Urfe have been cut – there simply wasn’t room for them, I assume – although the main ones are there. But the entire final section of the book, in which Urfe returns to the UK and tries to discover Conchis’ true identity has been completely cut. Having read the book, the film is an unsatisfactory adaptation, but it’s hard to imagine how Fowles could have adapted it anyway. Fowles appears in the film, incidentally – during the opening credits, he’s the deckhand who says, “Phraxos” to Michael Caine.

Ma Mère, dir. Christophe Honoré (2004), is another Isabelle Huppert film and is based on a 1966 novel by Georges Bataille of the same title. A young man, fresh out of Catholic school, visits his parents on Gran Canaria. His father, who he hates, dies in an accident shortly afterwards, and the young man is introduced to a life of sex and depravity – the Canary Islands night-life, in other words – by his mother. I really didn’t like this film. Thoroughly unlikeable characters doing unlikeable things, with a narcissistic self-regard which in no way makes their antics entertaining. It might make for a good novel, but it doesn’t make for a good film. Mind you, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could make an entertaining film out of Houellebecq’s Atomised, but Oskar Roehler did (see here).