Several years ago, Shaun Duke and myself challenged each other to produce a short series of themed movie lists, which we posted on our blogs. I bumped into Shaun at the Worldcon in Dublin last month, and during our conversation I suggested we resurrect our film challenges. Shaun agreed. And then, a week or so ago, someone tweeted a link to Screen Rant’s “10 Most Underrated Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films Of The Last 20 Years” [sic, sic and sic], and it’s the usual suspects plus a couple of “they must be fucking joking” choices… But it occurred to me it was a perfect theme for mine and Shaun’s first film challenge.
For the record, here’s Screen Rant’s list, in reverse order:
I’m not going to bother dissecting the list, other than to say I disagree with most of it and strongly disagree with a couple of the movies on it. The list is also boringly Anglophone and surprisingly Anglophilic (even though Snowpiercer to have never had a UK sell-through release).
Twenty years, however, it a bit too long a period to pick ten under-rated genre movies, so for this challenge, Shaun, I’ve decided to limit it to ten years. Also, science fiction and fantasy only – no horror or superhero movies or supernatural thrillers. And, obviously, they can’t be on Screen Rant’s list…
This actually proved harder than I expected. Chiefly, I think, because I’ve watched so many films over the past few years. Some were obvious picks – for me – but selecting others, and making the list well-rounded, was a, er, challenge. Anyway, here they are, in reverse order as above:
10Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011, USA). I’ve been a fan of Brit Marling’s work since seeing her first movie, Another Earth (also 2011), and while Sound of My Voice‘s genre credentials are slim they are certainly integral to the story. A pair of documentary film-makers attempt to infiltrate a cult whose leader claims to be from the future. It’s brilliantly under-stated stuff. And the ending manages to keep the viewer guessing.
9Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). I’m not a huge fan of anime but no list of science fiction films would be complete without at least one title (er, I have two). Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is the third of four films adapted from Anno’s own television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I would really like to see but which is really hard to find on DVD). The final film is due next year. It’s all giant mecha and giant weird aliens, but it looks great and it delves deeper into the psychology of its cast than is usual for the genre. True, it probably makes little sense without having seen the first two films in the series – but why not watch them as well?
8Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010, Norway). This could be considered alternate history, although it’s cleverly structured such that its alternate history is actually a secret history. In the real world, Norwegian minister Arne Treholt was convicted of treason in 1984 for selling secrets to the USSR. In the world of the movie, he was actually the head of a secret ninja force which reported directly to the King of Norway and was at war with a CIA-created stay-behind group that sought to trigger a war with the USSR. The film is a pitch-perfect spoof of 1970s exploitation action movies, with an amazing level of care taken over the production design.
7Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). Switzerland is not a country that springs to mind when discussing science fiction cinema – well, other than HR Giger – but even more surprisingly Cargo is an accomplished piece of science fiction film-making that manages to encompass a whole raft of genre tropes and yet still spin something new out of them. The CGI is not perfect in places, and one or two of the tropes drop into cliché as the story progresses… but this is a good solid piece of space-based science fiction, with an interesting premise and a well-handled climax.
6Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). Shinkai’s animated films are absolutely gorgeous. I swear, you can see the individual raindrops in them. I also have a soft spot for Japanese high school genre anime stories. And body-swap stories. Your Name does both. A female high school student in a provincial town finds herself randomly swapping bodies with a male high school student in Tokyo. As they learn about each other, so they discover there is a much more at stake. It’s not an easy plot to describe because too much detail would constitute a spoiler. But Shinkai’s animation is simply stunning, so it’s worth seeing any of his films. But this is his best yet.
5Dredd, Pete Travis (2012, UK). I grew up reading the comic 2000 AD and Judge Dredd was its flagship strip (UK comics are generally anthology comics, unlike US ones). He also appeared in a national newspaper. And in a pretty bad movie adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. That a new film adaptation might actually be any good was not something I’d have thought possible. But Dredd succeeded. Its plot is simple: Dredd and new recruit Judge Anderson are sent to a tower block to investigate three murders by the local drug lord, Ma-Ma. The block goes into lock-down, and Dredd and Anderson fight to survive against Ma-Ma’s heavily-armed troops. Dredd is basically an ultra-violent arthouse movie, and it works astonishingly well. There have been rumours of a sequel. Yes, please.
4Pojkarna, Alexandra-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). Speaking of body-swap movies… Although the title of this movie translates as “the boys”, the film was released with the English title of Girls Lost. Both fit. Three teenage girls who are being bullied at school order a mysterious plant from an online supplier. They drink its nectar and awake to find themselves changed into teenage boys. And so begin to explore their new, and temporary, existence. There’s a sort of understated acceptance to the central premise that allows the girls to explore their new identities without losing sight of who they are or what they gain from their transformation. And while story drifts a tad toward cliché as it nears its climax, the final scene is one of those which turns a good film into a great one.
3The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). The Untamed opens with a young woman in a barn having sex with a tentacled alien. Meanwhile another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. The Untamed has a documentary feel, which I find greatly appealing, but more than that it is an excellent example of how a science-fictional conceit can be used to illuminate the quotidian. There are not many examples of good sf slow cinema, but this is one of them.
2John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012, USA). This is probably the most contentious entry on this list. Although plainly the first in a planned franchise, the movie flopped at the box office – thanks to a sabotaged marketing campaign, rumour has it, rather than poor audience response – despite being one of the most narratively sophisticated genre films for quite a while. Having said that, its source material is over 100 years old, which means a lot of the ideas have been re-used so extensively in the century since they’re just not fresh anymore. But the film looks stunning, the plotting is extremely clever and, the odd longeur aside, it’s a crying shame a sequel was never made.
1Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013, UK). I read the Michel Faber novel of the same title from which this was adapted nearly twenty years ago, and absolutely hated it. So I was somewhat ambivalent about a movie made of the book. To be fair, the adaptation is not particularly faithful, and whatever plot the novel possessed has been stretched so thin in the film it’s pretty much non-existent. Scarlett Johansson is convincingly blank as an alien woman harvesting men in Glasgow for meat, and the guerrilla film-making gives the film a surprising verisimilitude. I’m not convinced the film makes a point as meaningful as it think it does, but at least it tries to say something.
There are another dozen or so films that could have made the above list. Perhaps I’ll save them for a challenge for another day…
I know I have a very broad taste in movies, but this half-dozen seems to be taking the piss a little. A Japanese tokusatsu, a spaghetti sci-fi (based on German pulp sf), the last of Jancsó’s self-referential Hungarian meta-comedies, three Children’s Film Foundation movies, a Bollywood film, and a Chinese romcom…
Cutie Honey, Hideaki Anno (2004, Japan). So I was looking for films to add to my Cinema Paradiso rental list when I saw this one and was surprised to recognise the director’s name – whose name I knew from the Evangelion films, of course. So I texted David Tallerman and asked him if he’d seen it. He’d never even heard of it. He immediately looked it up (and discovered the US special edition DVD came with a Cutie Honey lunch box) and bought the (vanilla edition) DVD. Meanwhile, I added it to my rental list and moved it to #1. And it arrived a few days later. And… Well, it makes MTV look like slow cinema. And there’s zero exposition. It is completely bonkers. In a way that Japanese films can only be. Cutie Honey is some sort of heroine, powered by a badge, or something, which was invented by her father, who makes only a couple of of fleeting appearances. And there’s a villain, who is now a tree (really) who wants to take over Japan, or something. And, okay, I’ve no real idea what was going on in this film. The opening scenes have Cutie Honey preventing the Golden Claw from kidnapping a scientist, in some of the most ridiculous fight scenes I’ve ver seen, but none of its seems to make much difference as halfway through a tower grows under the Tokyo Tower and lifts its several hundred feet in the air. And then Cutie Honey battles the villain’s minions, but is captured by swordsman who is half-white and half-black, like a yin-yang symbol, and can fly…. I suppose in many respects, Cutie Honey is not unlike some of the anime films I’ve seen, but having had no previous experience of tokusatsu, I’ve no idea if that’s typical. It was fun, in a mad sort of way. I’d add a couple to my rental list, but I’ve no way of knowing which are the good ones and which are the bad ones – and I’m only assuming Cutie Honey is good because of Anno’s name (because the Evangelion films are very good).
Mission Stardust, Primo Zeglio (1967, Italy). I have a sort of love-hate relationship with spaghetti sci-fi films, which is an awful label for science fiction films made during the the 1970s in Italy to cash in on a post-2001 market, but I can’t think of anything better. Some of them transcended their origins and are now considered cult films. Some vanished into obscurity. Rightfully so. Some are being rediscovered – thanks to releases on DVD by Shameless and Arrow. I have even bought some of them. Mission Stardust is loosely based on the Perry Rhodan series of books, the most successful science fiction series of all time, with more than 3000 volumes published since 1961. I seem to vaguely recall reading a couple of English translations back in the 1980s. Despite its success, there are few film adaptations. It’s claimed it influenced Eolomea, and other DEFA sf films, but only in as much as it was the public face of German sf. The DEFA sf films, incidentally, are good. Well, perhaps not Signale – ein Weltrainabenteuer (see here). Anyway, Mission Stardust has a mission to the Moon encounter a stranded alien spacecraft. A senior member of the crew is dying of leukaemia, but there is a cure on Earth. So the female commander of the alien spacecraft – who gratuitously changes her clothing in front of Perry Rhodan before leaving the spaceship – pilots the shuttle down to a small African nation. Where a crime lord sees a chance to seize power by kidnapping the alien commander. So there’s this weird mix of styles – what starts out as mid-sixties Italian sci-fi turns into a colonoial thriller, but one in which the good guys have super-advanced technology. One of the appeals of spaghetti sci-fi was always the design, that characteristic 1960s Italian design you see in some films of the period from the country. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be much in evidence in Mission Stardust. The alien shuttle looks more like a giant bathysphere than a spacecraft. And the model work is all a bit pants. I found this free on Amazon Prime, so it’s not like I’m out of pocket for having watched it. But it was rubbish, and in no way did it encourage me to read any of the Perry Rhodan books.
Ede megevé ebédem, Miklós Jancsó (2006, Hungary). I have now seen all six of Jancsó’s Kapa and Pepé films and I’m no wiser as to what they’re about. The two title characters play so many roles – including themselves! – throughout the series, and often within a single film. Not to mention Jancsó’s own appearances as himself, sometimes as the actual director of the film. And Gyula Hernádi, who wrote a number of Jancsó’s films, including co-writing credits on these, also pops up every now and again. In this one, Kapa and Pepé meditate on Hungarian capitalism. But not even using Google translate on Hungarian reviews helps explain what’s going on. One review machine-translates as: “Small house in the woods. Mucsi and Scherer are in it. They refused. A puppy protects them. Mucsi is dealing with something of a mystery. Maybe with escorts.” Um, yes. Pepé joins a mafia family who run a prison… but then the film flashes back to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, also starring Peter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi, and it all has something to do with voluntary execution, both in the mafia-run privatised prison and in Ancient Rome. I’m going to have to watch these six films again, probably several times, but I suspect I’ll never really understand what’s going on in them. But that can be a good thing too.
The Monster of Highgate Ponds / The Boy Who Turned Yellow / A Hitch in Time, Cavalcanti / Michael Powell / Jan Darnley-Smith (1961/1972/1978, UK). I added this collection of Children’s Film Foundation films to my rental wishlist because of the Michael Powell one. I’m a fan of the Archers – that’s Pressburger and Powell, not the radio serial – but I’d never seen The Boy Who Turned Yellow (although directed solely by Powell, the story and script was by Pressburger). I remember the CFF from my own childhood, short films that would play before the main feature at cinemas. I couldn’t tell you which ones I saw, and I’ve no real desire to plough all half-dozen CFF DVD collections the BFI have published. But the CFF was an excellent institution – although it does still exist, as the Children’s Media Foundation, but it hasn’t made films since 1985 after its chief source of funds, the Eady Levy, was abolished. That’s the thing about taxes, you see, they help pay for good things. And when governments cut taxes to win votes, those good things go away – not just the CFF, but the NHS, the welfare state, a proper public transport infrastructure, affordable utilities… Fuck the Tories. But, Weird Adventures… Each of the BFI collections is titled – there’s an Outer Space one (must add that one to my rental list), Runaways, Scary Stories, and so on. The three in this collection are science fiction, although hardly rigorous. In The Monster of Highgate Ponds, a travelling uncle leaves an egg for some sort of dragon with his young nephew and niece in Highgate. The egg hatches and the baby dragon imprints on the two kids. When it gets too big to hide at home, they hide it in Highgate Ponds, but discovery is inevitable – as are the bumbling crooks who try to kidnap the dragon in order to sell it to a zoo. Sadly, what charm the film has is spoiled by the really crappy stop-motion and man-in-a-suit dragon. The Boy Who Turned Yellow is better, although cringingly dated, and the lecturing is a bit heavy. A boy falls asleep in class during a lesson on electricity. On his way home, something weird happens and everyone within a small area in London turns bright yellow. The boy is visited by an alien from a planet of electrical beings, who is responsible for turning him yellow. The alien helps the boy find his pet mouse, who he had lost during a school trip to the Tower of London the previous day. It’s all very, well, CFF. In the final film, Patrick Troughton plays a time traveller. But he’s not Dr Who. And, in fact, it’s not him who does the travelling in time, but two schoolkids, who rescued him when his time machine collapsed on its unsuccessful trial run. Unfortunately, the time machine isn’t that effective and it never sends them to the intended time, meaning they’re usually inappropriately dressed. There’s a nice touch in that a teacher they hate, Sniffy Kemp, keeps on turning up in the different historical periods as a dramatic foil. This one more than the others reminded me of the CFF films I remembered from my childhood, probably because in 1978 I was a child. But they also feel much like the kids’ TV of the time I recall. However, nostalgia only has so much appeal – I mean, much as we complain about how bad things are now, and remember fondly life from previous decades, the 1970s were no utopia. I was insulated from a lot of bad stuff, of course – I was a kid. And though I admire some of the culture produced during that period, and am singularly unimpressed by some of today’s, I am inordinately fond of many of the things we take for granted in 2018, such as smartphones, streaming, cheap international travel (and free movement throughout the EU – while we’ve got it, anyway), or Google translate… (Not to mention a society that is way more equal in terms of LGBT or race relations… if considerably worse in terms of economic equality.) While I sometimes wish times were simpler, as they had been forty-odd years ago, I also know they really weren’t that simple back then, and likely no better than now in many respects, but with nylon sheets and drip-dry shirts, both of which the mere thought of having to suffer make my skin crawl… So I guess nostalgia has a part to play, just perhaps not that big a part. I suspect I’ll add a couple more of these CFF collections from the BFI to my rental list, and nostalgia will play a small part in that, but then I’ve no problem with wearing rose-tinted glasses providing you know you’re wearing them…
Rock On!!, Abhishek Kapoor (2008, India). I recently upgraded my Fire TV Stick, and sold my old one to a friend. I forgot to factory-reset it before handing it over, and thought I’d better double-check my watchlist before he had a chance to plug it in. Because, well, you know… And while doing this using the Amazon website, I discovered that a shitload of Bollywood films had been added. So I bunged half a dozen on my watchlist. Including this one. I think this the first movie I’ve ever watched with two exclamation marks in the title. Four young guys in Mumbai in the 1990s formed a rock band, sort of MTV-friendly grunge, won a battle of the bands and were signed by a label. But the label’s plans and the band’s plans were not the same – the label-owner wasn’t interested in them playing their own instruments, for example. Things come to a head during the filming of the first promo video, when the director seems interested only in filming the lead singer. The guitarist kicks off, the lead singer walks out, and the band folds. Cut to ten years later. The lead singer is a successful executive in his father’s investment bank, the keyboard player now writes advertising jingles, the drummer works in his family’s jewellery shop, and the guitarist gives occasional music lessons while his wife runs a fishing business which barely manages to, er, put food on the table. The lead singer’s wife visits the drummer’s shop, unaware of who he is, discovers their connection, and decides to invite the band members to an upcoming birthday party. Which naturally leads into “we’re getting the band back together” (no prizes for spotting that reference), which ends up resetting wrongs from a decade before. Okay, the music was part of the product, a commercial movie, and for all that they were trying to be musos it sounded massively commercial, but it’s baked into the story. And this is merely a Bollywood take on well-used Hollywood material. There’s probably a 1940s version of it. In fact, I suspect one or two of the Gold Diggers movies from the 1930s might be progenitors. But, despite the US grunge rock, this was still very much a Bollywood film and I enjoyed it. Not a great movie, by any means, but a fun one. And currently free on Amazon Prime.
Zero Point Five Love, GengXiao (2014, China). I’m a big fan of China’s Sixth Generation directors and I’ve watched a lot of the more populist stuff in my time – like Jackie Chan – but the Chinese film industry is as broad as Hollywood, and probably nearly as old – see The Goddess, see here – so I’m always keen to see films from other countries that haven’t in some way been “curated”. And Zero Point Five Love appeared on Amazon Prime with no commentary so I put it on my watchlist. A Chinese girl newly returned to China after time spent in the UK falls in love with an upcoming young executive. They meet cute: she’s a dancer at a corporate event, slags off the CEO for being cheap to a young man who buys her a drink, only to discover he’s the CEO… It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched the film – and I really should write these sooner after watching them – and all I can remember is a fairly standard rom com plot played out in modern-day China with a pair of attractive and likeable leads and a number of English subtitles that really did not make much sense, like “Not as far as the slutty peacock” or “I can’t water your time seflishly anymore” or “I should be wayward for my love”. But, for all that, it’s a nice film. It’s a feel-good rom com and it does the job admirably. It’s no Jia Zhangke or Fei Mu, but neither does it claim to be. Had it been a Hollywood film itwould have been a tenth as interesting. Being Chinese, and a product of modern China, lent it some interest, but it was fairly standard romantic drama for all that. I don’t regret spending the time watching it.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895
Again, more US films than I really would like to be watching. True, over half of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is American, and when I’m looking for brainless entertainment to watch of a Saturday night with a bottle of wine in hand, then the US provides more suitable films than any other nation but… I’d seriously like my movie viewing to be more global, and though I’ve been making an effort in that direction, it sometimes feels like I’ve not been assiduous enough… Oh well. Most of my favourite films and directors are not from the US, and my DVD/Blu-ray collection now certainly comprises more world cinema than Hollywood…I’m getting there.
Elephant*, Gus Van Sant (2003, USA). You know that thing they have in the US, and that keeps on happening, where someone walks into a place and shoots everyone, because civilised nations banned guns the first time it happened but the US is happy to sell assault rifles to any lunatic with a dollar bill… Elephant apparently started life as a documentary about a real school shooting, but turned into a fictional representation of one. The film follows the victims, witnesses and perpetrators, often criss-crossing timelines, which is quite an effective technique. But the film itself offers no commentary on its subject, other than showing the shooters being bullied by jocks. Which is weak. I mean, it’s not hard to condemn either the shooters, the culture which persuaded them shooting their peers was a conceivable response, or the society which allowed them access to the weapons to do so. But Van Sant does none of these. He humanises the victims – which is the weakest argument of all against such atrocities. We know they’re human, we know they are just like us. We also know the perpetrators are little different to us. What we want to know is: why was this allowed to happen? And what is being done to prevent it? In the US, the answer to both appears to be: very little.
Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). The Evangelion films are re-workings of the Neon Genesis Evangelion OVA, but rather than distillations of that 26-episode series they feel more like isolated excerpts from it, ie random episodes from a much longer story. I like that the films make no concessions to their viewers, and that despite their basic plot of high-school kids piloting mecha in fights against giant aliens, there’s so much more going on that’s left for viewers to puzzle out: the world-building, the relationships between the characters, the technology, even the family dynamics for those characters who are related to each other… In this movie, the action takes place fourteen years after the explosive end of Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. Shinji and Evangelion Unit 01 have been drifting in orbit. He is rescued by WILLE and fitted with an explosive collar. Only it turns out WILLE is fighting NERV, and they have a, er, flying battleship. Which is now powered by Evangelion Unit 01 (there are around a dozen Evangelion units by this point). And then it sort of gets a confusing, with some cast members carried over from the earlier films, and entirely new ones to figure out as well. Not to mention a circuituous route, via the weird dynamics between the Evangelion pilots, to a final battle scene, which triggers another apocalypse… I’m going to have to watch this again – if not all three films – before I truly figure out what’s going on. It’s all made for an odd viewing experience. Although superficially the same, and sharing a design aesthetic, the three movies manage to present three episodes of one story-arc in three tonally different ways. The fourth and final film is due Any Day Now, having postponed several times since its original release date in 2013.
The Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand (2003, Canada). Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but this sequel is on a different one. I’d not been that impressed by the first film – it seemed almost a parody of an independent movie, a group of characters sitting around moaning about the state of the world – so I can’t say I was especially keen on seeing this sequel. But I must have stuck it on my rental list, and subsequently forgotten about it, because it arrived and I watched it and… It’s just as dull. It’s set seventeen years after The Decline of the American Empire, which was released in 1986, and features most of the same cast. Rémy has terminal cancer, and his family – especially his son, a financier living and working in London – and his friends (from the earlier film) come to visit him. There’s a lot about the Canadian national health system being over-stretched and ineffective, but I can’t decide if that’s done deliberately in order to enable the plot (rich son pays for expensive treatment in US), or some kind of commentary on public healthcare. There’s also a number of scenes of the friends sitting around and talking, a lot of which is reminiscences. I found it all a bit uninvolving, much as I did The Decline of the American Empire. Meh.
Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I really liked Keiller’s earlier two films, London and Robinson in Space, and was expecting much the same of this one. But it was so much better. It has the cinematographic beauty that comes from well-placed static shots like in Benning’s films tied to a clever voice-over narrative like something out of an Adam Curtis documentary. This time Vanessa Redgrave narrates, as the lover of the narrator, and Robinson’s friend, in the earlier two films. Robinson in Ruins opens with Robinson’s release from prison, and then describes his journey through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, remarking on the things Robinson found and their history and how it all links in to the UK’s current economic malaise (current as of 2010, of course; we all know who exactly who – Osborne’s damaging and ineffective “austerity” aside – is responsible for the UK’s economic woes in 2016). I liked London and Robinson in Space a lot, but Robinson in Ruins is so much better. Perhaps its because it’s nearer in time than those two earlier times. True, I remember Tory Britain from 1979 to 1997 (although I was abroad for the last three years of it). Of course, 2010 saw the end of thirteen years under New Labour, although Robinson in Ruins is more about the damaging effects of big business and capitalism, and the corruption in which its naturally embedded, than it is economic policies. I suspect I will be watching this again before the end of the year, and it might well make my top five best of the year by December…
The Misfits, John Huston (1961, USA). This was both Clark Gable’s and Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, and when it arrived from the rental service I assumed I’d stuck it on my list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – except it isn’t, at least not the 2013 edition, which is the one I’m using. So I’m somewhat mystified as to why I stuck it on my rental list. Because it’s not that interesting. Monroe plays a somewhat flighty divorcee, Gable plays an ageing cowboy, the two fall in love. There’s Montgomery Clift as a rodeo cowboy who hooks up with them, and Eli Wallach as Gable’s friend, who’s a mechanic and flies a biplane. Gable and Monroe’s relationship falters when Gable decides to go capture some wild horses in the hills (to sell for dog food). He, Monroe and Wallach, plus Monroe’s friend Thelma Ritter, head off to a rodeo to find a third cowboy and so meet Clift. It all feels a bit like a cynical attempt to plug into some US myth or other, not to mention trading on its two marquee name stars. Gable is good, but Monroe looks like she’s sleepwalking half the time – and by all accounts, it was a difficult shoot as she often turned up late, and sometimes never at all. Clift isn’t too bad, although he doesn’t quite convince as a dim-witted cowboy. The final act, where the five – Wallach in a biplane, the rest in a pickup – try to round up half a dozen wild horse, and Gable gets dragged across the desert by a mare, feels somewhat over-stretched. Meh.
Red River*, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). I honestly thought I’d already seen this – I mean, I’d seen a several Hawks westerns starring John Wayne, and I was pretty sure this was one of them. But apparently not. Of course, it’s not that easy a call, given Hawks’s penchant for remaking his films under new titles… Wayne plays a typical Wayne character, who leaves a wagon-train, and his sweetheart, which is bound for California, to head south to claim land in Texas, accompanied only by a grizzled old man and a pair of steers (one male, one female, of course). Later that day, they see smoke on the horizon and dash back to discover the wagon-train destroyed by Native Americans and everyone killed. There is only one survivor, a traumatised boy called Matt. The three continue south, Wayne finds his land and claims it, killing a representative of a Mexican don who has title from the King of Spain (so much for international relations…). The film then jumps forward fourteen years, Matt has grown up into Montgomery Clift, and Wayne looks more like himself than Ronald Reagan (as he did earlier). Wayne’s ranch has proven successful and he has thousands of head of cattle. But no money. The just-ended civil war saw to that. So he needs to take his cattle to the nearest railhead in Missouri hundreds of miles away to sell them. There’s a nearer railhead in Kansas, but since no one has actually been there and see it, Wayne refuses to head that way. His high-handed tactics during the drive end up with Clift challenging him, taking over the drive and heading north along the Chisolm Trail to Kansas. Fortunately, the rumoured railhead exists, and Clift gets an excellent price for the cattle. Wayne then turns up. ready to kill him, they have a big fist-fight, and make up. It’s all very manly, and just like you’d expect the Wild West to be. Of course, having seen a number of Westerns, I’m aware of the way cattle barons like Wayne’s character treated homesteaders and settlers, and that’s not even mentioned – in fact, the only town in the film is the Kansas one at the end. Admittedly, the cattle drive is pretty impressive… although the use of sound-stages for the campfire scenes do spoil all that location shooting a bit. I’m not that much of a fan of Westerns (see my comments on the genre in previous Moving picture posts), and I understand that the Chisolm Trail was historically important, and that Red River makes a good story of it, but it’s all a bit too macho and one-sided for me.
1001 Movies You Must See Before YOu Die count: 780
A lot of people do best of the year posts, but I also like doing these best of the half-year ones, as I find it interesting to see how they change as the year progresses. The two sets of lists are rarely the same, of course – new works make each top five that I hadn’t read, watched or listened to in the first half of the year. But sometimes, works from the honourable mentions get promoted to the top five as my opinion changes of them.
Every time I write one of these best of posts, I seem to start them with: it’s been an odd year for reading but I’m not sure why… Which I guess means they haven’t really been odd since they’ve pretty much been the same. It could mean, I suppose, that the last few years have felt like my reading lacks shape or direction because it’s not in step with the genre commentary I see online. After all, while science fiction still forms the bulk of my reading at forty percent, with mainstream fiction a distant second at 26%, I don’t generally read the genre books which are getting the buzz… And when I do, as I did with this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, then I have no idea why those books are receiving so much praise… Which is no doubt why only one category sf novel makes my top five – and only two genre titles appear in my honourable mentions… And yes, the one sf novel in my top five is on the Clarke Award shortlist (because it’s an exception to my earlier comments, of course).
1The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I knew the moment I finished this book it would make my top five for the half-year, and I’ve not read anything since (I read it back in March) that has impressed me as much. I plan to read more by Erpenbeck – although not all of her books have been translated into English. Although not published as genre, either here or in Germany, its central conceit is certainly genre – a young woman, who is born in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives out her life during the turbulent years of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, she dies; other times, she survives. It’s a similar premise to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; it’s also beautifully written and feels like a much more substantial read. The historical side is handled with skill, and the view it gives on elements of European history during the period in question is fascinating. I wrote about it here.
2Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990). Sebald is in a class of his own, so his presence in this list is probably no surprise. Vertigo is a collection of stories which have no overt link, but because of Sebald’s voice they read as a seamless whole. I’ve no idea how much of the novel is fact or fiction – it is, like Austerlitz, very autobiographical I suspect, but I’m not familiar enough with Sebald’s life and career to determine if parts of this novel – especially the section in which the narrator returns to his childhood village of W., notes the changes and reminisces about his time living in the village – although does not lessen my admiration of the book in the slightest (and learning the truth may well increase it). I’ve only read two Sebald books so far, and both made my best of the year lists. I still have one more, The Rings of Saturn, on the TBR. I think I should save it until next year. Anyway, I covered Vertigo in a blog post here.
3Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). It’s been a good year for this book, with appearances on various award shortlists. And rightly so. It’s not quite a sequel to the earlier Europe in Autumn, but it’s better for not being one. And thanks to the rank irresponsibility of our government in calling this stupid referendum, Europe at Midnight has become unfortunately topical. I say “unfortunately” because it’s obviously not the book’s fault, and although its creation of a pocket universe England might map onto the wishes of assorted Brexit fuckwits, I know the author’s sympathies don’t lie there and the novel’s Gedankenexperiment is in no way an endorsement of them. Of course, no one ever accused Le Carré of being pro-Soviet but then his novels presented the USSR as the enemy… And I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here as Hutchinson’s Community is also presented as the enemy. But never mind. I wrote about this book here.
4A Gods in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). Like the Hutchinson, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novel, Life After Life, although it neither continues the plot, nor uses the same cast, as its predecessor. I thought Life After Life good – an immensely readable novel – and even nominated for the Hugo (of course, it didn’t make the shortlist). A God in Ruins is, I think, slightly better. Its central conceit is dialled back more in the narrative, but it’s just as hugely readable as Life After Life. A God in Ruins is the story of the life of a man who fought during WWII and so tries to live a blameless live afterwards. It is, sort of, a variation on A Matter of Life and Death; but in a way that is neither obvious nor intrusive. For much of its length, it’s a lovely piece of historical writing, of personal history stretching much of the length of the twentieth century; but there’s an added dimension which is only hinted at. I wrote about it here.
5Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). It’s all very well celebrating the achievements of past years, but often all we have as evidence are words in books. True, there is evidence aplenty on the surface of the Moon to prove that twelve men once walked there (assorted fuckwits who insist it was all faked aside), but in order to view that evidence we would have to, er, visit the surface of the Moon. There is, however, a lot of evidence remaining on Earth that something involving trips to the Moon took place – launch platforms, rocket test stands, etc – and it’s hard to imagine anything with such concrete (in both senses of the word) physicality being part of a great confidence trick. Is there a word which means the opposite of “paleo-archaeology”? Hunting through the abandoned remains of great engineering projects from last century, which either failed or have long since run their course? Neo-archaeology? This book celebrates one particular engineering project that ended over forty years ago – and it’s one that’s fascinated me for years. I wrote about Abandoned in Place in a post here.
Honourable mentions:Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (2015), an excellent reprint anthology of feminist sf, containing a couple of old favourites, and much that was new to me – some of which became new favourites; Soviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014), another photographic essay, this time of abandoned buildings and plants in what was the USSR and its satellites; Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015), strange goings-on when a 1970s UK folk band record at a haunted manor, handled with a lovely elegiac tone; Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015), a new collection by a favourite writer, so of course it gets a mention; In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, Malcolm Lowry (2014), a “lost” novel and never before published, it’s certainly not among his best but the copious annotations make for a fascinating read; Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920), his best-known novel after Lady Chatterley’s Lover and just as notorious back in the day for its rumpy-pumpy, but I love Lawrence’s prose… and if the philosophy and politics in this are somewhat dubious, I still have that; and The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993), not since Alias Grace have I read an Atwood novel I enjoyed so much on a prose level, so for me this is currently her “second-best” book.
My project to watch all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is now in its second year and has continued to introduce me to new directors I might otherwise never have discovered. Two films in my top five certainly qualify as such, and a third I’d long been aware of but would probably never bothered watching if it hadn’t been on the list. Of the remaining two, one was on the list but I’d seen at least one film by the director before; and the other movie was on a version of the list different to the one I’ve been using…
1An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). My introduction to Ozu’s work was Tokyo Story which, at the time, I didn’t really take to. But he has been repeatedly recommended to me, and Floating Weeds was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I rented it… and liked it quite a lot. But the (I think) Criterion edition DVD cover art of An Autumn Afternoon reminded me a great deal of Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Red Desert, a film I love, so I wanted to watch that. And after a false start, buying Late Autumn by mistake, but loving it all the same, I eventually got myself a copy of An Autumn Afternoon… And that convoluted route to it totally worked in its favour. Late Autumn I thought really good, but An Autumn Afternoon struck me as a somewhat satirical take on similar subject matter – and so perversely reminded me of my favourite Douglas Sirk movies – but it also seemed a distillation of all those elements of Ozu’s cinema I had noted in Tokyo Story and loved so much in Late Autumn. I have now added the rest of the BFI editions of Ozu’s films to my wants list.
2Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). This wasn’t quite a “Benning moment”, where I loved a film so much I immediately went and bought everything I could find by the director… although I did indeed love this film and immediately went and bought everything I could find by Rocha. But, I must confess, wine was involved in the Rocha purchase, whereas it wasn’t in the Benning one. Not that I regret buying Black God White Devil, Entranced Earth or Antonio das Mortes, as all three are fascinating films – but Entranced Earth remains my favourite of the three. Not only is the Brazilian landscape unfamiliar enough I find it strangely compelling, but the film also features scene of political declamatory dialogue, which I love. The film is part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which seems to be like France’s Nouvelle Vague in parts but Italy’s Neorealism in others. There’s a crudity in production which, perversely, seems a consequence of, as well as an enabler for, a film closer to the director’s vision than might otherwise have been the case. And I really like that, I really like that movies like this are closer to the creative process than is typical in our commodified homogenised product-placement Hollywoodised cinema world. There are those directors who muster sufficient clout in their nation’s cinema industry they can make whatever they like, but there are also those who make great films because of their total lack of influence… and it’s the latter who often produce the more lasting work. Like this one.
3Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I’ve no idea how many years I’ve known about this film, but I’d never actually bothered watching it. Something about what I’d heard about it persuaded me I wouldn’t enjoy it – and while that may have been true twenty years ago, it could hardly be true now given my love of Benning’s work. But it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I stuck it on the rental list, it duly arrived… and I was capitivated. The score and cinematography worked perfectly together – and while it’s a more obvious approach to its material than anything by Benning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautifully-shot piece of work. I ended up buying the Criterion Blu-ray edition of all three Qatsi films, which, in hindsight, was a mistake, as the transfers of the first two don’t really do the format justice. The sequel, Powaqqatsi, is very good, although not as good as Koyyanisqatsi; but the third film, Naqoyqatsi, sadly suffers because its use of CGI (in 2002) makes it appear a little dated. All three are worth getting. But not on Blu-ray.
4Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). The problem – if that’s the right word – with documentary films, is that no matter how beautifully-shot they might be, if the subject does not appeal then you’re not going to like the film. But then it’s not really fair to say the subject of Nostalgia for the Light “appeals”, because it’s an unpleasant subject and no one’s world is a better place for knowing about it. Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the hunt for stars by astronomers at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the search for the remains of the Disappeared, the thousands of victims Pinochet’s brutal regime massacred for… whatever feeble-minded self-serving reasons such fascist regimes use. It’s a heart-breaking film, all the more so because it interviews those who survived the regime; but Guzmán’s intelligent commentary also gives context and commentary to the interviews. I now want to see more films by Guzmán – and oh look, there’s a boxed set of his documentaries available on…
5Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). There are a couple of Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and so I rented them and enjoyed them; and while they may be superior examples of the genre (if “Bollywood” could be called a genre) and great fun to watch, to be honest they struck me as no more worthy of inclusion than a great many of the US films on the same list. But then I stumbled across a list of Bollywood classic films, and decided to try a few more than the two or three on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… Which is how I discovered Guru Dutt. He’s been described as “India’s Orson Welles”, which I think is a somewhat unfair label as it suggests he’s an imitator; but while Dutt’s films certainly follow the forms of Bollywood movies, they’re also well-constructed, cleverly-written dramas. After seeing Pyaasa, I bought a copy of his Kagaaz Ke Phool, which I also thought very good; and I have his Aar Paar on the To Be Watched pile (as well as the 1985 film of the same title, because the seller buggered up my order). I think Dutt would be a perfect candidate for the BFI to release on DVD/Blu-ray.
Honourable mentions:Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali), an old Malian fantasy tale told in a straightforward way that only highlights its strangeness; Come and See, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia), the banal title hides a quite brutal look at WWII in Russia; Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA), a low budget thriller that rises above its production values, but then Fuller was good at that; Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles (1966, Spain), a mishmash of Shakespeare’s various depictions of the title character, but it works really well and after watching it my admiration of Welles moved up a notch; Story of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France), a heart-breaking story of France’s mistreatment of its women during WWII, played strongly by the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert; Osama, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan), an even more heart-breaking film about the mistreatment of women by the Taliban; A Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia), a stark and beautifully-shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’; Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22, Hideaki Anno (2007/2009, Japan), giant mecha piloted by high school kids battle giant alien “angels”, which as a précis does very little to describe these bonkers animes; Storm over Asia, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia), a beautifully-shot silent film set in Mongolia; Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK), firemen during the Blitz by one of Britain’s best directors, but I probably need to rewatch his films to decide if this is his best; London, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK), it reminds me a little of Benning, but the arch commentary by Paul Scofield is hugely appealing; and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France), a mostly-silent, almost entirely unadorned depiction of three days in the life of the title character, which makes for fascinating viewing despite its lack of action or, er, plot.
You’d think that given the amount of music I listen to that this would be the easiest category to fill in each year. But, perversely, it usually proves the hardest. Probably because I don’t document my music purchases and I rarely write about music. I also don’t purchase albums in anything like the number of films I watch or even books I read. Having said all that, I managed to pick five albums I first listened to in the first half of 2016, and they are…
1A Year With No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016). I saw this band perform at Bloodstock in 2014 and thought them so good I bought their album as soon as I got home. And now, after four years, a second album finally appears. In some respects, Obsidian Kingdom remind me of fellow countrymates NahemaH and Apocynthion, although they’re not as heavy as those two bands. They’re progressive metal, of a sort, and they build up a wall of sound with guitars and drums, not to mention the odd electronic effect, that’s extremely effective. The songs are complex, often very melodic, and move from dreamy to aggressive and back again very cleverly.
2Afterglow, In Mourning (2016). I’ve been a fan of In Mourning since first hearing the monumental The Weight of Oceans, which remains one of the best progressive death metal albums of recent years. Afterglow doesn’t start as strongly as that earlier albums, but a couple of tracks in it turns more progessive and the melodic hooks which characterise the band begin to appear. By the time the last song fades away, you know it’s another excellent album.
3Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016). The name of a band isn’t always a clue to its origin, but yes, Todtgelichter are German. And they play a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal that works really well. Most post-black bands – I’m thinking of Solefald as much as I am Arcturus – tend to incorporate all sorts of musical influences; but Todtgelichter keep it simple and heavy and hard-hitting, and it works extremely well.
4Eidos, Kingcrow (2015). It’s an entirely international line-up this top five, with Spain, Sweden, Germany, and now Italy. Kingcrow play progressive metal, although this is no Dream Theatre. They sound in parts very like Porcupine Tree – which is a perfectly good band to sound like – and on one track, ‘Adrift’, the main guitar part is almost pure Opeth. As influences go, you can’t really do better than that.
5Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016). I stumbled across Trauma Field a year or two ago when I found their 2013 album Harvest on bandcamp. It seem to me there were bits of fellow Finns Sentenced in there – although Sentenced never used a female vocalist that I can recall – but also a more progressive element than that band had ever incorporated. This new album feels a little lighter in tone, much more atmospheric, and is definitely less Sentenced-like… which is, of course, good.
Unfortunately, there are no honourable mentions so far this year. I’ve just not been listening to enough new music. I do most of my listening at work, and I’ve been so busy there I’ve not had a chance.
Another mixed bag, country-wise, this time. Four were rentals, two I bought. Two are also sequels. And one is silent, while another has only a music soundtrack.
Storm over Asia*, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia). Although cinema was in its infancy back before “talkies”, what a lot of people seem to forget – or don’t know – is that a lot of the cinematography of that time is often astonishingly good. Anyone who has seen Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc can’t fail to be impressed by the beauty of the Dreyer’s imagery. Storm over Asia, an early Russian film, is not one that was known to me – Eisenstein, yes; even Aelita, yes; but not this one… Which is a shame as it’s quite an amazing piece of work. It’s set in Mongolia in 1918. A Mongolian trapper is ripped off by a European trader, and runs to the hills after fighting the trader. He becomes a Soviet partisan, fighting against the British occupiers. They catch him and shoot him, but then discover he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Fortunately, he’s still alive, so they patch him up and plan to use him as a ruler under their control. Of course, he turns on them. Hang on, I hear you saying, the British never invaded Mongolia; yes, they invaded lots of places over the centuries, but Mongolia wasn’t one of them. But this is a Russian film, and they were hardly likely to paint themselves as the villains (plus, the British had the advantage of being “capitalists”, which the villains of any Soviet film had to be, of course). Definitely worth seeing.
45 Years, Andrew Haigh (2015, UK). It’ll be interesting to see how this film does on sell-through. Hollywood, indeed most Anglophone cinema, seems locked into chasing that young male demographic, as if they’re the only people who go to the cinema. But when you make films aimed at one group, you can’t be surprised when other groups stay away. But then I suspect older viewers are more likely to watch a new movie on sell-through than they are in the cinema. But are they going to bother doing that for shitty tentpole blockbusters like the MCU films? And are they going to spend money on all the merchandising crap, which isn’t there to sell the fillm as much as it is to convince fans that’s okay really to like such rubbish since the property is so ubiquitous they can’t be considered weird for liking it… Which at least can’t be said of 45 Years, which is about a married couple, and the title refers to the time they’ve been married. But a few days before a planned celebration of the event, the husband receives news that the body of an ex-girlfriend, who fell into a crevasse in a glacier back in the 1960s, has just been discovered… While this all happened before he married, he hasn’t been completely honest about what happened with his wife. This is a nice, understated piece, well-played by a high-powered cast. It’s already garnered a fistful of award nominations and wins, and deservedly so.
Naqoyqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (2002, USA). This is the third of the Qatsi trilogy, made some twenty years after the previous two films, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Ironically, it’s the one that’s dated the most. That’s chiefly because at the time it was made CGI was not as high-quality as it is now, and it shows. Not just in the resolution or range of colours of the computer-generated graphics, but also in the imagination on display. Those earlier two films were pure cinematography – of places and people, with no special effects. And they remain as effective today as they did when they were shot. Also to Naqoyqatsi‘s disadvantage is its subject: technology and war. There’s a big emphasis on computer code, modelling and simulations, and virtual reality, which would have felt cyberpunk… if only the film had been released a decade earlier. While the concerns, and subjects, of the first two remain true to this day, much of the technology celebrated, and reviled, in Naqoyqatsi no longer exists. In parts, Naqoyqatsi reminded me of David Blair’s Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees from 1991 (I have a signed copy of the film on VHS somewhere), and in other parts of its two predecessors. I’m glad I picked up the set and so now have all three films… but going for the Blu-rays was probably a bit much. [A]
The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer (2014, Denmark). This is the follow-up to Oppenheimer’s earlier The Act of Killing, and covers pretty much the same topic: the Indonesian slaughter of “communists” during the mid-1960s after the military seized control. The conceit here is that the brother of a man who disappeared during those murders visits some of the killers as an optician examining their eyesight, and quizzing them about it while he does so. There’s a telling remark made to camera by one of the men who committed those murders, “Thanks to the Americans for teaching us to hate communists”. The fact that most of those killed weren’t actually communists is apparently irrelevant. The US made it plain that communists were legitimate targets, and it’s not like anyone was going to look too closely when the so-called authorities labelled someone a communist. After all, the US had done exactly the same itself back in the days of HUAC, albeit without the machetes and assault rifles and death toll. Later in The Look of Silence, there’s a clip from US network news show from the 1960s, and it pretty much approves of the death and mutilation of the so-called communists. It goes without saying that the events discussed in this film are horrible; and that it’s enraging the perpetrators not only survived, but prospered and continue to do so. It’s heartbreaking that one survivor’s only way to live with it is to consider it all past and gone, life has moved on. Because clearly justice has not prevailed. And it’s unlikely to ever do so. It would be all too easy to blame it entirely on the Indonesians, except that would not be strictly true. The West creates these situations and should take responsibility for them – except that would mean admitting they’d done wrong, that the corporations are no longer under control, or that capitalism doesn’t actually work.
Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance, Hideaki Anno (2009, Japan). It would not be untrue to describe the plot of the Evangelion series as: giant alien creatures called Angels invade Earth (individually) and are fought off by giant cyborg creatures piloted by high school kids. Because, of course, there’s so much more than just that going on in there – that would be the Hollywood version. The Angels are these bizarre creatures, looking partly like something drawn by Moebius and partly like some nightmare doll. In Evangelion 2.22, there is now a squad of Evangelions, and the pilot of one is possibly the most irritating American character ever to appear in a film (which is quite an achievement). In fact, the existence of the squad means Evangelion 2.22 is a more action-packed film than Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, although like the first it’s parsimonious with the details of its setting, leaving much of the world-building a mystery. For example, it’s only on a visit to an aquatic research centre that the film explains that the seas really are red, and why. It’s a movie that requires several watchings – although that may simply because I have yet to learn the Way Of Watching Anime. One thing worth noting, however, is Evangelion 2.22‘s frankly bizarre score, which at times sounds like 1970s jazz/rock fusion – and seems weirdly anachronistic but is actually pretty good. Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray, and I’ll be picking up a copy. The final film was due for theatrical release in late 2015 but has been delayed. I can wait. [ABC]
Thunder on the Hill, Douglas Sirk (1951, USA). My favourite film was directed by Sirk, and the handful of melodramas he made between 1953 and 1959, such as Magnificient Obsession, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, I rate very highly. But he also made a lot of quite frankly ordinary thrillers and dramas for Hollywood throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Thunder on the Hill is one of these. Shot in black and white and set in, of all places, Norfolk, it sees a group of people descend on a convent during a fierce storm. One of these is a convicted murderer, with rescort, on her way to prison, except, of course, she’s really innocent. However, the victim’s doctor – the murderer’s brother – is now doctor at the convent. Guess what happens. Claudette Colbert plays the lead and doesn’t make much of an effort toward a British accent; neither, for that matter, does Ann Blyth. Most of the supporting staff are actually British – so you get that odd disconnect where some of the cast clearly can’t be the characters they play because they have the wrong accents. This is pretty ordinary and forgettable stuff, and you’d be much better off watching one of Sirk’s melodramas.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 762
Seems to be mostly US films this time, including a few populist ones. I don’t know what came over me.
Ant-Man, Peyton Reed (2015, USA). Superhero films are monumentally stupid and pretty much awful. Putting comics up on screen and investing billions of dollars in state-of-the-art CGI has not made them any cleverer or less juvenile. And yet Ant-Man is one of the few which, we’re told, transcends the genre. Which, when you think about it, is a backhand way of saying, “yes, we know superhero films are dumb and low art”. Of course, it does no such thing. Its hero is a bit grey, inasmuch as he’s no boy scout in tights; but neither is he a villain. As for the plot: nasty executive takes over noble inventor’s company, exploits’magical maguffin invention for typically capitalist reasons, or at least tries to… Yawn. We’ve seen it a zillion times before. The only difference is that in SuperheroWorld, said executive gets his comeuppance; in the real world, he gets a seven-figure bonus. Paul Rudd makes a good fist of the title role, although Michael Douglas these days feels more like a caricature of an actor than an actor. But the story was the usual superhero bobbins, and figuring out whether a superhero film is a good film per se is a bit like counting angels on the head of a pin – ie, you have to believe in angels in the first place. Best just walk away.
Atlantis – The Lost Empire, Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise (2001, USA). And if superhero movies are for people who haven’t grown-up, then Hollywood animated movies are for people who have yet to grow up. (When I wrote that sentence it seemed to make perfect sense to me, but coming back to it a couple of days later, I’m having trouble figuring out what I meant. Ah well.) There’s no reason why such films have to be like that, of course – just look at Japan’s anime industry; or indeed animated films from Europe, such as René Laloux’s La Planète Sauvage, or anything by Jan Svankmajer. (We’ll ignore Heavy Metal for the time-being, if you don’t mind.) Atlantis – The Lost Empire is a kids’ film, but the design is quite effective and the story is sufficiently oddball to appeal to me. Its performance at the box office was apparently “lacklustre”, so much so that Disney cancelled a planned television series and an underwater attraction at Disneyland. It’s by no means a great film, although it has become something of a “cult favourite”. There’s a sequel, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, which was cobbled together from three episodes of the cancelled television series, and it’s pretty damn poor. Atlantis – The Lost Empire doesn’t hold a candle to either Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, but it’s still better than about half of Disney’s feature film output.
Spy, Paul Feig (2015, USA). Every now and again I throw a Hollywood blockbuster onto my rental list (er, okay, perhaps more than one, given the above), so I can spend at least one night with my brain turned off (shut up at the back); and while I never have especially high hopes of such films I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t for Ant-Man, but Spy was a comedy and… Oh dear. Tonally, it was all over the place. Humour one minute, over-the-top violence the next. And the improv… Seriously, whoever decided that improv was a good way to make comedy movies “better” was clearly a fucking idiot. Remember those films with sharpy witty dialogue? They were written like that. Now we have witless burblings spontaneously vomited up by comedians who think that not filtering their verbiage is the way to generate laughter. It’s not. Spy had its moment, not least the set-up, in which a field agent’s support officer takes his place in the, er, field… but they just had to over-egg the cake and make her some sort of combat expert despite the fact her career had been spent behind a desk. And the dialogue bounced from the inane to the embarrassing, without doing much to advance the plot. Spy could have been a good film, but giving the cast free rein was a big mistake – this is a movie that needed to be tightly controlled to work. In its present incarnation, it doesn’t.
Beyond, Joseph Baker & Tom Large (2014, UK). This was a charity shop find, and I’m not entirely what it was I actually found. Earth has been attacked by aliens, who have pretty much defeated humanity. There’s a couple, they meet at a fancy dress party. They get together, I think they marry, they have a baby. They argue about the baby. The film jumps back and forth chronologically. And I have to admit that after a while I started to lose interest. Beyond is one of those independent films in which pretty much everything is implied and all that remains on the screen is the bickering between the two leads. In and of itself, this is not necessarily bad, but Beyond does feel more like it should be a short film, rather than a 84-minute feature film. I’ll give the movie a rewatch, because I feel it ought to be more interesting than it proved – but we’ll, er, see…
Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, Hideaki Anno (2007, Japan). I am not a big fan of anime, although people continue to recommend various anime films and/or OAV to me. But it’s worth doing so, because sometimes it sticks. Usually it takes a while after I’ve watched it, however. (I am, incidentally, defining “big fan” based on those anime fans I know, who have watched absolute tons of the stuff.) For example, I watched and enjoyed Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, and then later decided to pick up a copy of it for myself. And I’m sort of feeling the same for Evangelion 1.11, except… Well, this film, and its sequels, is a reworking of the OAV Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I’m wondering if I might be better off watching the OAV. Especially since, according to Wikipedia, the OAV goes into more detail on the background – Evangelion 1.11 more or less throws you right into the middle of the story, and it’s only some way into the film that some background needed to follow the story is revealed. And yet, the art is of a high quality, the story is certainly intriguing, and I actually find the refusal to explain makes me like the film more. It’s set in, er, 2015, after aliens – called Angels – have wiped out much of the Earth’s population. Secret scientific organisation NERV has invented giant cyborg mecha to fight the Angels, and this film is about the first of those to go into combat, and its pilot’s relationship with the wounded pilot of the prototype mecha. I can’t get excited about men and women in giant robot suits – I really didn’t like Pacific Rim – but there’s enough going on in the story of Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, for me, to offset the fact it’s about men and women in giant robot suits. Incidentally, Neon Genesis Evangelion comprised twenty-six, but there are only four feature-film reboots – this one, Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance, Evangelion 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo, and an unmade final film.
Shadows*, John Cassavetes (1959, USA). Cassvetes appears four times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he was certainly an important figure in US independent cinema, but, in terms of cinema as a whole, was he more important than, say, Varda, Wajda, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Sturges, Resnais, Kiarostami, Haneke, or Ophüls… to name a few? I can understand why Shadows is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not just because if its importance in terms of indie cinema, but also because of its subject matter. But according to Wikipedia, its genesis was a bit fraught. Originally shot with improvised dialogue, Cassavetes ended up remaking great chunks of it using a script. As documentation of a particular time and place – New York, the late 1950s – and a particular sector of society, Shadows works well; but the improvisational nature of the story tells against it, and it often seems a little too chaotic – but that’s something all of Cassavetes’s films have in common, and probably explains why I’m not a fan of his work. Yes, Shadows belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, moreso perhaps than some of Cassavetes’s other movies; and at least I can now cross it off.
La strada*, Federico Fellini (1954, Italy). Fellini is a popular director in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, with seven films – one of which is La strada. I have to date seen all but one of those films, and I liked 8½ pretty much straightaway, and grew to love Fellini Satyricon as I watched it. The rest were a bit meh. To be fair, I like Italian Neo-realism as an idea more than I’ve liked those films which are labelled as such – not that all, or indeed many, of Fellini’s movies have been classified as Italian Neo-realist. La strada has Giuletta Masina as a naïf who is sold to an abusive Anthony Quinn to perform as assistant (and clown) to his travelling strong man act. She runs away, he finds her, there’s a rivalry with trapeze artist Richard Basehart. The rivalry intensifies, partly driven by the two men’s relationships with Masina… and it all ends badly, in a sort of all-too-predictable-but-gently-ironic way, not that Fellini is a director who does irony especially well. I would rate some of Fellini’s films highly, but not this one. I’m glad I saw it, and I can cross it off the list, but that’s about it.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 750