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Moving pictures 2018, #14

I’ve been having trouble recently getting invested in some of the films I’ve been watching. But there have been a couple of notable exceptions. Some nights I want a movie that doesn’t require much in the way of thought, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Or I choose badly. On the one hand, I want to watch as widely as possible; on the other, sometimes some of the films I’m drawn to can be a bit of a slog. A couple here were not very good, despite the names attached to them. Another was a straightforward melodrama but happened to be about a subject that interested me, so I liked it. And one was the latest film by a favourite director. In other words, the usual mixed bag…

How the West was Won, John Ford, Henry Hathaway & George Marshall (1962, USA). I’ve known of this film for many years. Who hasn’t? It’s one of those Western titles you see mentioned everywhere, even if no one you know seems to have actually watched it. I last came across a mention of it in reference to McLintock! (see here), so when I found it on Amazon Prime, I decided to give it a go. And now I have watched it. And it is… epic. In other words, it has pretty much everyone in it. Unfortunately, it’s also the bullshit narrative the US likes to believe about its invasion of the North American continent – and it’s pretty much an invasion by most definitions of the term. The movie opens with Karl Malden and his family travelling west to settle in the wide open lands in that area. They bump into fur trapper Jimmy Stewart, who falls for one of Malden’s daughters. But the trip doesn’t go as planned, and some of the family die while rafting on a river. The film follows the remainder of the family over a couple of generations as they head west and infiltrate the capitalist infrastructure which has implanted itself in the new territories. One of Malden’s daughters, Debbie Reynolds, marries a gambler, played by Gregory Peck, who turns his talents to investment, and so becomes a serial millionaire. This only happens after she’s spent time as a showgirl. Then there’s George Peppard, who joins the US Army with dreams of glory, inadvertently saves the lives of Generals Grant and Sherman, but returns home to discover his mother has died. How the West was Won pretty much features everyone, and part of the fun of watching it is identifying the stars (Jimmy Stewart’s wig is especially bad). But as narratives of colonisation of the West go, it’s pretty much up there with history textbooks that claim the US single-handedly fought and won WWII. This is not a film to be used to teach kids their heritage. Not unless it’s one of those US schools where the teacher is licensed for concealed carry and the students get an AR-15 on graduation. But the US prefers the Hollywood version of its history because, of course, it makes them out to be hardy pioneers instead of brutal conquerors… Cinematically, the film has its moments, but to be honest you’d have to be pretty incompetent to make Monument Valley look boring, and none of the directors attached to this film could be accused of that. There are better western films, even ones with a somewhat tenuous link to actual history, such as Shane or Rio Bravo, but which have better cinematography  or make more of a meal of the scenery. How the West was Won feels like a textbook for a specific, and long since discredited, view of US history. It’s a well-made film, and it looks quite lovely in places. But it’s a piece of historical hokum and should be watched with that in mind.

Spacewalker, Dmitry Kiselev (2017, Russia). I had this on my rental list, but then went and bought it by accident. Like you do. Fortunately, I remembered to remove it from my rental list. The Russians have produced a number of films in recent years about their space programme – Gagarin: First in Space (see here), Salyut-7 (see here), and now Spacewalker, this last about Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965, another Space Race first by the USSR. For all that the US likes to trumpet its space achievements, the USSR beat its hands down until Apollo. And even now, US astronauts have to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to travel to the ISS because there is no human-rated US spacecraft currently in service. Ahem. Spacewalker opens with a MiG-15 being flown by Leonov in trouble with its jet engine on fire – and it was nice to watch a film in which a MiG-15 was played by an actual MiG-15 (although I suspect it was mostly CGI) – and because he’s a complete nutter, he goes into a steep dive to put out the fire, manages to pull out in time, and lands the aircraft. So he’s not a natural fit for the Soviet cosmonaut programme when they start, but he has his champions and is recruited. When he’s picked for the first spacewalk, he trains with Belyayev, but Belyayev breaks his leg during a parachute jump. Leonov campaigns hard for Belyayev to be kept as mission commander, and succeeds. The mission is depicted pretty much as it happened. Leonov had no troubled making the spacewalk, but experienced real trouble getting back into the Voskhod spacecraft. It’s all presented with the same degree of verimilitude of the aforementioned films. It’s like Gravity has opened some sort of floodgate. And I for one welcome these films, with their convincing depictions of actual real space exploration history, and if it’s Russian self-aggrandising instead of American, so what? It’s real history and it’s fascinating. And okay, I do love me some Soviet sf films, and these are are not Soviet although they cover Soviet history. But they’re accomplished pieces of work and the equal of, if not better than, anything Hollywood has produced. Worth seeing.

Such Good Friends, Otto Preminger (1971, USA). I’ve been working my way through Preminger’s oeuvre, and three of his later films were released recently on Blu-ray in a collection in the US but unavailable here. And since I have a multi-region Blu-ray player… Of course, now I own them, they’ll probably be released in the UK… and cost less. Although maybe not. A lot of classic movies newly-released on sell-through in the US don’t get UK releases, and Preminger is better-known for his 1940s and 1950s noir films than he is his late 1960s / early 1970s melodramas and comedies. And having now seen the three films in this collection, I can understand why. Such Good Friends is based on a novel by Lois Gould. In it, a successful children’s author goes into hospital for a minor operation, but the doctors bungle it, and bungle every subsequent attempt to fix the medical problems they’ve caused. The film did not start well. The main character, player by Dyan Cannon, goes to a publishing party with her husband, and Burgess Meredith, playing a famous author, is present; and for some reason, she imagines him naked, which Preminger actually shows on film. And then the plot goes into its litany of hospital fuck-ups and… It’s a well-made film but not an especially good one. For a start, it’s a comedy but it’s not at all funny. It’s based on a novel by Lois Gould, and after watching the film I went and did some drunk ebaying and bought the book. I have done this before – watched a a bad adaptation of a novel, and gone and bought the novel. I have no real interest in reading Gould’s book, but now I have a copy I probably will. It did at least sound better than the film. We shall see.

Spies Kill Silently, Mario Caiano (1966, Italy). Released under the titles Le spie uccidono in silenzio and Los espías matan en silencio, this was an Italian-Spanish thriller set in… the Lebanon. I watched it because I visited Beirut during the early 1970s, and I wanted to see if I’d remembered anything of the city. I hadn’t. I now wish I could not remember anything of this film. The daughter of prominent scientist is mysteriously murdered in a hotel swimming pool in Beirut. An American agent is called in to investigate the case, because there have been a series of unexplained deaths of notable scientists. It’s all a plot, of course, by one particular scientist, to take over the world. This involves brainwashing people to do his bidding, so his assassins can be literally anyone. The secret agent goes undercover, with an antidote to the brainwashing serum, but the scientist spots this and really brainwashes him. Which was a bit of a twist to the formula. But it all comes right in the end. And I was probably too young to form any lasting memories of Beirut when I visited to the city, so nothing in the film struck a chord. And it was a pretty crap film as well.

Hurry Sundown, Otto Preminger (1967, USA). Preminger apparently bought the rights to the novel from which this was adapted before it was even published. For $100,000. Later, quizzed on how much he’d paid, and perhaps embarrassed at how poorly the film had been received, Preminger replied to a reporter’s “how much did it cost?” with “seven ninety-five”. This was taken to mean $795,000. Preminger had actually meant the book’s cover price, $7.95. The story is set in 1946 Georgia. A share cropper has just returned from fighting, and discovers that his cousin has been buying up land as part of a development deal. There are only two unsold parcels of land left standing in his way – the ex-GI’s, and that of another  ex-GI… who happens to be black. This was during the days of segregation and all the white people in the film – with the exception of the white ex-GI and his family – are horribly racist. Worse, however, the film was made in 1967, in Lousiana due to union reasons, and the members of the production were shot at, and the swimming pool of the motel where they were staying was bombed. Because the cast and crew were integrated. I mean, a film set in 1946 about segegration made 21 years later is the target of hate cimes. That’s beyond irony. That’s the US. Fucking racists. The book, Hurry Sundown, did not prove to be the mega-bestseller Preminger had hoped, although it was certainly epic at 1,046 pages. It now appears to be long out of print. And the film didn’t do very well either. I’m not surprised. It’s not a good film. Michael Caine plays the cousin, a Southern entrpreneur, and he’s not a good fit for the part; Jane Fonda plays his wife. John Phillip Law, who looked great but didn’t have much in the way of acting chops, plays the ex-GI, and Faye Dunaway his wife (and she reportedly hated working with Preminger). Diahann Carroll plays the local teacher who stands up for the black ex-GI (played by Robert Hooks, who was apparently in Star Trek 3) , and she’s always worth watching. But for a late 1960s movie, none of this works, and it all feels like a story that has nothing new to say about the US’s appalling record on race relations. It was not successful, and justifiably so. Fortunately, I was not so drunk watching it that I ebayed a first edition copy of the 1,046 page novel on which it was based…

Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke (2015, China). Jia is perhaps the most celebrated of the Sixth Generation of directors from China, and with good reason. Which is not to say the othe directors are bad. They are in fact very good. But Jia is especially good. And Mountains May Depart is his latest film, again starring his wife, Zhao Tao. The film is split into three sections. The first is set in 1999, and it’s familiar territory for Jia – a mix of documentary and drama, in which the lines between the two are blurred. The film opens in 1999 with a love triangle. Zhao is love with a coalminer. but marries an entrpreneur as China embraces capitalism. They have a son, named Dollar. The second section is set in 2014. The two are separated and Dollar visits Zhao and she tries to get him to recognise her as his mother, and not her ex-husband’s new wife. The final section is set in 2025, in Australia. Dollar is now a university student, and his father is bitter and collects guns. I’ve seen comments comparing Mountains May Depart to Sirk, but I can’t see it. When I think of Sirk, I think of films packaged as women’s pictures but which cleverly subvert and critique women’s role in society (not all of Sirk’s films, obviously). Jia’s film is more a critique of Chinese society and its response to capitalism, and, in the final section explicitly, to the Chinese diaspora. True, the central character is a woman, Zhao, and her life provides the focus of Jia’s commentary. Not all of it worked for me. There weren’t enough Australian accents in the section set in Australia for a start (they mostly sounded American). The middle section is probably the best of the the three, with Zhao trying to make sense of what her life has become. Like Jia’s other films, it has that semi-documentary feel – a difficult trick to pull off in the 2025 section, which is probably why it doesn’t quite gel for me. On balance, I think some of Jia’s earlier films are better, although he remains a favourite director. Which is not to say Mountains May Depart is a bad film – it’s a bloody good film, but it’s not Jia’s best.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896

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Moving pictures, #62

These posts are starting to back up, so I’m going to have to get a few of them out. But hey, you like reading about films, right? It can’t be science fiction all the time, after all. Er, not that it has been this year. Anyway, movies… The US keeps on creeping back in – although in this case it’s two classic Hollywood movies. I’d like to keep my viewing on a 2:1 basis – ie, two non-Hollywood for every one Hollywood… but it doesn’t always work out that way. Oh well.

rome_open_cityRome, Open City*, Roberto Rossellini (1945, Italy). I thought I’d seen several of Rossellini’s films, but it seems this is only the second – the first was Journey to Italy, back in 2014. Rome, Open City was apparently financed by a wealthy old lady, as the war had pretty much destroyed the Italian film industry. She wanted Rossellini to make a documentary about a Roman Catholic priest who’d helped the partisans against the Nazi occupiers. Rossellini then persuaded her to fund another documentary about Italian children who had planted bombs and fought against the Germans. Fellini’s screenwriter suggested combining the two documentaries into a single feature film, and work began on that two months after the Allies had driven the Nazis from Rome. Rome, Open City pretty much tells the stories of those two documentaries in Neorealist style, and it does it quite effectively. A lot of the cast were non-professionals, and that, and the black white photography, actually gives the film a documentary feel. I’m still not a big fan of Italian neorealism, at least not of the  films under that label I’ve seen so far, although I like them enough to want to continue to explore the genre; but Rome, Open City was pretty good. Interestingly, some of the stock Rossellini used was supplied by a US Army private called Geiger stationed in Rome. Geiger claimed to have contacts in the US film industry and some have credited him with the global success of post-war Italian cinema. Fellini, however, called him a “half-drunk nobody” who claimed to be a producer. Geiger sued Fellini for defamation in 1983 but lost the case.

nostalgiaNostalgia, Andrei Tarkovsky (1983, Russia). And so the Tarkovsky rewatch continues, with this, his next to last film, made in Italy but starring a cast from various countries. A Russian writer is travelling about Italy, researching the life of an eighteenth-century Russian who lived in Italy but committed suicide after returning to Russia. The writer is accompanied by an Italian interpreter; and during their travels about Tuscany, they hear of a man who repeatedly tries to cross a mineral pool while carry a lit candle, and his story fascinates the writer. The old man (played by Swede Erland Josephson) had been in an asylum, but was released when the state closed them all. He’d been committed because he had imprisoned his family inside his house for seven years. (There’s more than an echo, and not just from the casting, with Tarkovsky’s next film, The Sacrifice.) I love Tarkovsky’s films, but I think Nostalgia might be the least satisfying. It looks lovely, of course; and the glacial pacing is pure Tarkovsky from the first frame. But it suffers because it has two male centres of attraction. Tarkovsky’s films are typically told from a single male viewpoint (he didn’t do female characters, more’s the pity). Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are about the title character, Solaris is about Kris Kelvin, Mirror is about the director, The Sacrifice is about Erland Josephson’s character… the nearest he gets to more than one is in Stalker, but it’s still the title character who provides the real focus. But in Nostalgia, you have the focus bouncing from the Russian writer to Josephson’s character, and it makes the movie feel unbalanced. The final scene, in which Josephson lectures a crowd and then self-immolates, also comes across as a weird change in tone, and though it feeds back into the emotional and narrative closure of the Russian writer’s story, it results in an ending that provides only a limited resolution. I think every self-respecting film fan should have Tarkovsky’s movies in their collection, but that doesn’t mean all Tarkovsky films are equal. Or indeed that I will feel the same way about each and everyone of them if I rewatch them all five years from now.

gunga_dinGunga Din*, George Stevens (1939, USA). Despite the title, the film is not just based on Kipling’s poem but also some of the stories from his collection Soldiers Three. In the film, the three are Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, and they’re NCOs in the Royal Engineers on the Northwest Frontier of India in the 1880s. In the first half of the movie, the three are sent with a company of sepoys to a British outpost which had ceased transmitting on the telegraph mid-message. They find the outpost deserted, but are then set upon by Thuggee bandits. They manage to fight them off, and return to their garrison. Fairbanks is all set to leave the army, marry Joan Fontaine and become a tea planter. But his old buddies still need him, especially when they learn the Thuggee guru is holed up in a gold temple. Their plan to capture him (and steal the gold) goes wrong, and they’re taken prisoner… but they turn the tables and capture the guru. But they can’t escape. And when the British army comes marching toward the temple, the guru reveals the whole thing is a trap and he has an army of his own hidden in the hills. He gives an angry speech about British imperialism and Indian self-rule, but it means nothing because the title character, a humble water carrier played by a US actor in blackface, manages to warn the British army. The poem’s race relations are pretty shit to start with, and the film only amplifies them. And yet there’s that bizarre speech by the Thuggee guru – an Italian actor in blackface, incidentally – which riffs on some pretty unpleasant truths about the British empire, and you have to wonder about sentiments more common now in the twenty-first century (except perhaps among Trump voters and Leave voters) appearing in a seventy-seven-year-old American film…

grapes_wrathThe Grapes of Wrath*, John Ford (1940, USA). Hollywood has a long history of churning out worthy adaptations of classic American novels, much like the BBC does for dramatising English nineteenth-century literary classics, although by the 1980s I suspect Hollywood had managed to cover all the major works. The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about Oklahoma migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. To be honest, I’d not expected much of this film, and I’d probably taken onboard a few too many stereotypes about the story, and the period of history it covers, over the years; and I’m fairly sure I read a Steinbeck novel back in my early teens but I can’t recall whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men… Anyway, I had relatively low expectations for The Grapes of the Wrath movie, and so the selfishness of US society it depicted came as little surprise… but the story also showed a side to the Okies – intentionally, obviously – in which they displayed a lot more human kindness and fellow feeling than those most at that time, and certainly more than those who were exploiting them. There’s even a government camp which looks after the migrant workers, provides them with shelter, hygiene and safety. Of course, all the local growers try to close down the government camp, because they want the Okies as desperate as possible so they will accept their rock-bottom wages. Despite a long history of films like this which show the dirty underbelly of capitalism (actually, more like the unvarnished reality of capitalism), US audiences still seem to revere the sociopaths who succeed materially in their flawed system – hell, they even make them president. Trump is not fit material for a folk hero. Tom Joad, the character played by Henry Fonda in this film, who is an ex-con returning home when the film opens, after being sent down for killing a man in a bar fight… well, Tom Joad would make a much better folk hero. And probably a better president too.

hijackHijack, Kunal Shivdasani (2008, India). Until watching this, I’d forgotten how shamelessly entertaining Bollywood movies are. I’ve been watching a lot of art house/world cinema this year, more so than in previous years certainly, and though I like such films as much because they show other parts of the world, as well as telling stories I find more appealing, it had slipped my mind how brain-switched-off entertaining some films can be. Hollywood does it well. But Bollywood does it better. With songs. Seriously, there’s no comparison. I can’t even remember what Hijack was about – a plane hijack, I guess – but I do remember starting to grin at the ludicrously cheesy opening credits, and the lyrics to the song played over the credits, and not stopping until the film had finished. I don’t even remember the song and dance numbers, and you’d think they at least would be memorable. But I don’t think it matters all that much – in the same way it doesn’t matter when you see a tentpole blockbuster: you’re there for the two to three hours of experience, and why should it matter if you can remember nothing five minutes after leaving the auditorium? Except, well, cinema – or at least film – is an artform, and it succeeds as an artform when it is memorable. Nothing happens in James Benning’s movies but they are memorable, they are art. Hijack punches all the buttons for mindless entertainment, but will probably be ignored by those most likely to enjoy it because it’s in Hindi. And has songs. But it was fun, it was dumb, and it was entertaining. And if that’s all you’re looking for then Bollywood is as valid a source as Hollywood.

bandeBande à part, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I’m slowly working my way through Godard’s oeuvre, and while I have a lot of time for what he tried to achieve I do tend to find his films a bit hit and miss. This one, despite being highly regarded, I found a miss. The plot is nominally based on that of an American noir novel. Two men and a woman, all in their twenties, decide to rob the woman’s aunt, who has a large stash of cash. But one of the men’s uncle finds out, so they bring the robbery forward a day. It goes wrong – they kill the aunt and cannot find the money. So they leave. One of the men goes back, as he thinks he knows where the cash might be hidden. His uncle follows him. They find the money and kill each other. The aunt reappears, not dead after all. She, and her lodger, take the money. The young woman and the surviving young man ride off in disgust. It’s all filmed in black-and-white, and very Godard-seque – he was married to the film’s star, Anna Karenina, at the time, and I find his films suffer when he’s more interested in his stars than in his movie – although Bande à part is not as consciously Nouvelle Vague as, say, Truffaut’s Tirez le pianiste (which I suspect is going to be my yardstick for New Wave-ness from now on). Worth seeing, but only middling Nouvelle Vague and slightly-above-middle Godard.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 829


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Moving pictures, #54

Another varied batch of films. I think I might well end up having watched more movies this year than last year… and I watched 544 in 2015. Oh well.

stagecoachStagecoach*, John Ford (1939, USA). Do westerns belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? If they do something unexpected and original with the form, or if they’re seminal, then yes, I suppose they do. But I can’t see that Stagecoach does any of those. It’s best-known as John Wayne’s breakthrough movie. He’d made lots of Poverty Row westerns, and his one previous appearance in a big-budget western was a box office flop. But Ford, who had not made a talky western before, wanted Wayne and fought the studio to get him. The film was a hit. But why does that make it one of the 1001 best movies ever made? The story is pretty stereotypical: a handful of people with back-stories leave town on the stagecoach, they pick up Wayne en route, who has just broken out of prison, and then chase the US Cavalry across the state, pursued by Apache. According to Wikipedia, Stagecoach “has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made”. But given that Wayne had been in about eighty Poverty Row Westerns during the 1930s, I find it hard to believe everything in Stagecoach was seminal – some western at some point must have introduced whatever tropes exist in Stagecoach. Of course, a Poverty Row film might not have had the release of a major studio movie… Perhaps it’s just that Stagecoach has been overtaken by westerns that came after it. I mean, some of the westerns from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve seen have been pretty damn good, albeit for a variety of reasons. But I can’t say Stagecoach was one of them.

fantasia_2kFantasia 2000, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas & Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (1999, USA). I watched a much earlier Disney anthology film a few weeks ago, one that was put together to keep the studio in work during World War II. Fantasia 2000 has no such excuse. It claims to be a celebration of the original Fantasia, but comes across more like an excuse for its animators to show off – and, to be fair, some of the animation is very impressive. Unfortunately, each of the film’s eight segments is introduced by Hollywood stars at their most smirkingly oleaginous. Instead of a celebration of the original Fantasia, it gives the whole project the feel of a self-congratulatory Hollywood/Disney celebration. Of the segments, the abstract shapes of the opener were cleverly done, the space whales in the second were also good, the Al Hirschfeld-style animation in the third segment was clever but soon wore thin… and then it all started to go downhill, with one of the remaining segments a repeat from Fantasia. One for Disney fans, I suspect.

sacrificeThe Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). I’ve now replaced all my Tarkovsky DVDs with the new Blu-ray releases – well, all except The Tarkovsky Companion, which I don’t think is getting a Blu-ray release – and since I now own shiny new copies in a much better format, I’ve been rewatching them… And it’s been sort of weird sitting through these films, given the high opinion of them I held. Take The Sacrifice. I would have counted it among my favourite of his films, perhaps second to Mirror… And yet, having now rewatched it, it sort of feels like a Bergman film played at slow speed. Of course, this is chiefly because the dialogue is in Swedish (with some English), the star is Erland Josephson, and it was filmed on Gotland. But even then, the concerns of the film feel quite Bergman-esque…. up to the point where the nuclear holocaust takes place. That isn’t Bergman at all. And the wife’s subsequent breakdown, which is harrowing to watch, is not something you’d expect to see in a Bergman film. But would you expect to see it in a Tarkovsky film? And yet… I still think The Sacrifice is one of Tarkovsky’s best films, not because it least resembles the others but because so much of its emotion is there on the screen to see. Kelvin in Solaris was a bit of an enigma, Mirror was too patchy to have a real emotional payload… but The Sacrifice is all about emotion – not just Adelaide’s hysterics, but Alexander’s response to the holocaust. It’s a film that, like a densely-written literary story, rewards attention and rewatching, and even when you’ve given it neither, it still tells you that you should have done. And certainly more so than Solaris or Mirror. It’s as if the cinematic tricks used to tell the non-linear story of Mirror were used in service to a superficially uncomplicated linear narrative. There are films you rewatch because you enjoyed them; but there are films where every time you rewatch it you feel like you’re digging a little deeper into its meaning. Tarkovsky’s films definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m particularly glad buying the Blu-rays has prompted me into rewatching them. Which I will be doing a few more times before the year is out, I think.

ray_1Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray (1963, India). Ray is considerably better-known outside India than Ritwik Ghatak, but he also has a considerably larger body of work. And most of it seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (I wonder if it’s because Ray was championed by Merchant & Ivory…). Like Ghatak, Ray was Bengali, and Mahanagar is set in his native Kolkata. A young couple in Kolkata are having trouble meeting their bills, so the wife takes a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. She proves to be good at it. But when her husband realises this means he’s not being looked after to the degree to which he is customed, he asks her to quit. But then he loses his job, and she becomes the only breadwinner in the family. And the whole experience has given her the confidence and independence to carry the family over her husband’s objections. So much so, in fact, that when a colleague of hers, an Anglo-Indian, is fired because the manager believed she had thrown a sickie, she confronts the manager but ends up resigning in protest. A comparison with Ghatak’s films is, for me, inevitable. And while I’ve seen only a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I have seen more films by him than by Ghatak… I do like the urban character of Mahanagar – it doesn’t have those great shots of the river and countryside you see in Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, and its narrative is much more traditional in structure; but it’s an engaging drama and it’s played completely straight, with no frills. The end result is a movie which doesn’t have the scope of  A River Called Titas but handles its constrained domestic drama, and the social changes it documents, in a nicely low-key way. Recommended. And yes, once I’ve watched the three films in this box set, I’ll be buying volume 2 and then volume 3, and then the Apu trilogy if I can find a copy (as it’s been deleted already, I think).

youthYouth, Paolo Sorrentino (2015, Italy). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since I’d seen and been impressed by Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty in previous years, it was an easy decision to watch it. Unlike those other two films, however, Youth is English-language – in fact, it stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in the two main roles, supported by, among others, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda and Paloma Faith. Caine and Keitel are old friends, currently staying at a Swiss health resort. Caine is a famous composer, Keitel a famous director. A “queen’s emissary” (wouldn’t that be an equerry?) visits Caine and asks him to conduct one of his pieces at a special concert for Queen Elizabeth II. He refuses. Keitel, meanwhile, is trying to write the screenplay – with the help of half a dozen screenwriters – for his last movie, his “testament”. As you’d expect from Sorrentino, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are extended moments when the story is put to one side and the viewer is allowed to just revel in the atmosphere while suitable music plays (it’s part of the narrative, not something imposed by the medium). But the rest of the story… there are a couple of good cinematic tricks, and the dialogue is never actively bad, but it all feels a bit banal and perhaps even a bit stereotyped in places (especially Jane Fonda’s part).  I don’t know; Sorrentino is a master director, but I’ve seen three of his films now and each has left me slightly dissatisfied in some way – and the nearest I can come to articulating why, is that the way he structures his stories seems to flatten their dramatic beats and makes them feel a bit, well, hollow. But his films do look beautiful. So I’ll continue to watch them.

herzogThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974, Germany). I picked up a copy of this Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection a few weeks ago, and have been working my way through it. I already had many of the films on DVD – in a pair of box sets I bought years ago – but Herzog is definitely worth upgrading. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is not as bonkers as Herzog gets, but it is pretty bonkers. It’s also based on a “true” story. In 1828, a young man was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg. He claimed to have been kept imprisoned in a cellar for his entire life up until that point. It was rumoured he might be related to a royal house, although he denied it. It is now considered more likely he was a con artist, and made it all up in order to blag his way to notoriety and riches. Herzog goes with the mystery – but casts Bruno S, a completely bonkers Berlin musician, in the title role, despite Bruno S being in his forties and the historical Hauser being in his late teens. But it works because Bruno S is such a mad actor. Imagine someone had sucked Brad Dourif’s brains out of his ears, and the memory having had brains still remained, and you might get some idea of what Bruno S’s acting is like. And if that wasn’t enough, Herzog has Hauser bark his new-found learning throughout the film in a series of pedagogical conversations and interviews. It is completely unconvincing, and yet totally believable – a quality a lot of Herzog’s films possess. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is by no means Herzog’s best film, although it remains one of his more interesting ones – but this collection is definitely worth getting, and not just for the feature films but also for the special features, such as How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, a 1976 German TV documentary on the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in the US.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 809


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Moving pictures, #32

Definitely a mixed bag this time around. Perhaps a few too many from the US, but a couple from India as well. Plus Korea and Italy.

The-Good-The-Bad-The-Weird-2008-Front-Cover-1554The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Jee-woon (2008, Korea). The title of this film pretty much clues you into its story – yes, it’s a Western, but a weird one, and very much Korean. And, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of fun and pretty good to boot. There’s a treasure map, which a Japanese official is carrying from China to Japan. But while crossing a Manchurian desert, his train is attacked by the Bad, who has been sent by the map’s owners to retrieve it. However, also attacking the train is the Weird, who manages to get the map first – although he doesn’t realise what it is or its value. Then the Good, a bounty hunter, turns up to kill the Bad, but instead gets caught up with the Weird as he escapes the Bad’s goons. And so it goes, as the Bad catches up, they have shoot-outs and fights, before the two manage to escape yet again… and eventually decide to make for the treasure. En route, the Good reveals that he’s after the Bad because he’s the “Finger Chopper”, a notorious criminal back in Korea. Eventually, the three of them arrive alone at the treasure… except the treasure is not what they’d expected. The fight choreography is done well – and there’s plenty of it – and the story has a somewhat off-kilter sensibility that plays entertainingly. I’d forgotten I’d put this on my rental list, and when it popped through the letter-box I was expecting it to be a bit meh, but I really enjoyed it. A better-than-average popcorn movie.

liberty_valanceThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance*, John Ford (1962, USA). There are a lot of westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and I’m not an especially big fan of the genre. A few I’ve enjoyed, one or two I’ve even bought copies for myself. But most are, for me, Sunday afternoon viewing, enjoyable enough to watch but you’ve forgotten them ten minutes after the credits rolled. I get that they’re US mythology, that they’re predicated on tales of strong manly men being strong manly men and winning against all odds, but to be honest I find that Hollywood macho bullshit tiresome at best. I do, however, love the landscape in which these stories take place, and I value films which make a proper meal of it. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sadly does anything but – it was shot entirely on a soundstage. But it does offer an interesting spin on the whole idea of Wild West mythology… although it pretty much reduces it to a single line, and then spends the entire film justifying that line. Which is, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Jimmy Stewart plays a lawyer who travels west and settles in the rough town of Shinbone. En route he is waylaid by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the local gunslinging hoodlum. Stewart vows justice – but legal justice. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the local stand-offish hard man, warns Stewart that law books are not going to do it. And so it proves. Marvin continues his reign of terror, Stewart teaches literacy to many of the towns folk (including love interest Vera Miles), and Wayne pines after Miles and gets angry with Stewart for stealing her heart. Then Stewart goes into politics, upsetting Marvin who engineers a shoot-out. But Stewart shoots and kills Marvin. Or does he? There’s little to admire in the story of this film, with its tale of rule by strength and politics corrupted by money. By all accounts, it was also a horrible shoot. Ford constantly belittled Wayne, and at one point even turned on Stewart. It sometimes astonishes me that little of the hardships of making some films comes through in the final product, which is, I guess, a testament to the professionalism of those involved. You can’t tell watching a film whether it was a happy shoot or an absolutely miserable one. And, to be honest, I think we viewers should know. The end does not justify the means. The fact that Ford made a bunch of people’s lives a misery so someone else could make pot loads of money is, when you think about it, pretty offensive. Film is a far more collaborative medium than writing… but the various media all take care to hide the tribulations of the creative process… because, of course, they’re selling product. Still, that’s capitalism for you…

19001900, Bernardo Bertolucci (1976, Italy). I think I saw this on one of the alternative 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lists – ie, not the 2013 edition – so it was either dropped before, or added later… and I’m not entirely sure why it was there in the first place (I seem to say that a lot about the films I’ve watched). It’s certainly epically long, 317 minutes in fact, and was originally released in two parts. It tells the story of two men, the son of a padrone and the son of one of his workers, from the late nineteenth century through to the end of the Second World War. The padrone, Robert De Niro, comes to an uneasy alliance with the fascists, but the worker’s son, Gerard Depardieu, becomes a communist and fights them. Donald Sutherland plays the foreman hired by De Niro who becomes a full-fledged fascist, black uniform and everything. The film mixes the historical with the personal, sometimes to good effect, but often the focus is too tight on unlikeable characters and the relationship of the scene to the grander sweep of the narrative seems lost. One example is a sequence in which Sutherland accidentally kills the young nephew of the padrone… and the death, subsequent hunt for the “missing” boy and discovery of his body is used to illustrate the ignorance, ruthlessness and expediency of the fascists without actually making them any more villanous than they already had appeared to be. Having said all that, I wasn’t especially convinced by the three leads’ performances, although Depardieu seemed the best of the trio. And there were far too many moments when it all seemed a bit overwrought, everything turned up to eleven… only for the narrative to move on and dial things down to something more appropriate. As far as I could determine, the point of the movie was the move from the old system of landed aristocracy – the padrones – to something more equitable, in which the people owned the land they worked – with a somewhat violent diversion via the fascists, who picked up on the general malaise and incorporated it into their rhetoric but actually did very little to address it (UKIP voters, take note: this is how fascism operates). As a result, the ending, in which De Niro is cast down, and Depardieu uplifted, doesn’t really feel like a consequence of the preceding five hours… This is not helped by the film opening with a scene from near the end, so that the movie is actually one long flashback sequence. Meh.

river_titasA River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I watched it back in November 2014; and so too is his The Golden Thread, but that’s apparently – annoyingly – not available on DVD. Anyway, I’d thought The Cloud-Capped Star good enough to want to see more by Ghatak and, in the fullness of time, A River Called Titas was sent to me by one of my rental services. The film is one of those which comprises many interlocking stories (Wikipedia claims it was one of the first to do so – in 1973? Really?), all based around life in the villages on the banks of the eponymous river. One main narrative thread tells of a young woman kidnapped on her wedding night, but after she escapes from her captors she realises she has no idea who her husband is or where he lives. The movie takes a while to get started, and the quality of the original black and white stock was plainly quite poor – as is the audio quality – but the various weaving in and out of people’s stories soon proves captivating. I seem to rememember The Cloud-Capped Star being quite grim, and so is this in places, but the overall effect felt far more cheerful. There was also some excellent cinematography, especially of the river, as there was in the earlier film. I liked this so much, I’m considering getting copies of both of Ghatak’s films released by the BFI (except, WTF, copies of The Cloud-Capped Star are now £80…*); and I also fancy reading the source novel of the same title by Bengali writer Adwaita Mallabarman.

aar_paar_1Aar Paar, Shakti Samanta (1985, India). After being impressed by Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (see here) and Kagaz Ke Phool (see here), I decided to buy a copy of his Aar Paar… but the seller screwed up and sent me this 1985 film of the same title instead. When I pointed out their mistake, they told me to keep the DVD sent in error and they also sent me the correct one. As for Samanta’s Aar Paar… it’s pretty much what you’d expect a not very good Bollywood film to be like. True, the Bollywood films I’ve seen so far have been considered good ones, and I’ve enjoyed them; but Aar Paar was definitely like a cheap version of them. I can’t even remember the story – in fact, I think there were several of them, I’m not sure. I remember a number of really badly choreographed fight scenes in which it sounded like they were fighting with exploding fists. There were, of course, several song and dance numbers, one of which I seem to recall took place on a boat. And there was a villain with greased-back hair. And the hero was not only fighting for the love interest but also for social justice – something to do with the fishing industry, in this case. This is one of those films that goes in one eye and out the other, and also goes reasonably well with popcorn and beer because it doesn’t much matter if you’re not following it. Miss ten minutes and you can pick up what’s going on within thirty seconds. It was fun, kinda, but if I hadn’t been sent it by mistake I’d never have bothered to seek it out to watch. [0]

rosemaryRosemary’s Baby*, Roman Polanski (1968, USA). Polanski’s actions leading to his current legal status in the US aside, I’ve never really understood why he’s held in such a high regard as a director. Okay, Repulsion was good, and Chinatown is a classic – but the latter at least is a result more of its script than its direction. And so to Rosemary’s Baby of which… I can remember very little and it’s only been a week or so since I watched it. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, and John Cassavetes her husband (which is a little odd as I know him primarily as a director), and the two have this weird friendship with an older couple (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) after they move to a new apartment… Rosemary gets pregnant, but it doesn’t go well, and her doctor is somewhat horrified to learn that the weird neighbours have been feeding her “tannis root” and… I must have fallen asleep or something because apparently there was all this Satanic stuff and I missed it. I suspect I’m going to have to watch this film again, but I really don’t want to. What I do remember hardly endeared it to me, or persuaded me it was worth greater study. Perhaps if I stumble across a copy for 99p in a charity shop, I might buy it and watch it again, but otherwise it’s Polanski and… Meh.

pickupPickup on South Street*, Samuel Fuller (1953, USA). A year or so ago, I’d never even heard of Samuel Fuller, and now I find myself something of a fan of his films – albeit only on the strength of having seen five of them. This one is noir, and pretty typical in its following of the forms, except… it’s all about secrets stolen to sell to the communists. Cold war noir. It’s a pretty typical Fuller film (and I say that despite my limited experience) inasmuch as he wrote and directed it, and it feels like he banged it out much as a pulp fiction writer would bang out simplistic moral tales which hooked onto the current Zeitgeist. There’s no denying Fuller’s technical proficiency (or indeed technical creativity – cf The Big Red One), amd his ability to craft taut and well-plotted noir stories certainly seems to deserve more credit than it gets – although, to be fair, this is the third film by Fuller to be given the Masters of Cinema treatment, so perhaps that last comment is unfair. But there is something impressively hermetic about Fuller’s plots, they’re not just ur-noir, they’re pretty much ur-cinema. They are without indulgence, just pure dialogue and tight visuals in service to a self-contained story. Truth to tell, the actual story feels almost incidental – in this particular movie, the microfilm of top-secret information is no more than a maguffin. But that matters not a jot. I mean, there’s solid entertainment, and then there’s a film which is so tightly-packed it’s like neutronium or something. I bought this, rather than rented it, and it was a fine purchase. [dual]

1001 Movies You Miust See Before You Die count: 779

* Not wanting to miss out on A River Called Titas, given the price now asked for The Cloud-Capped Star, I went and bought it. But then I did a bit of hunting and discovered copies of The Cloud-Capped Star were still available from the BFI shop for the RRP, so I ordered one. It’s annoying, but apparently my tastes are so fringe I need to buy stuff I want straight away, because once it’s deleted/out-of-print it’s going to cost ten or twenty times more. Gah.


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Moving pictures, #36

Of the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die, 533 are from the US. That’s not an exact figure, of course – these days, with film production companies from different nations often doing deals to back a movie, it makes it difficult to say a movie is categorically from one nation or another. Even so, for over half of the list – which, admittedly, is clearly aimed at Anglophone film-goers – to be from a single country is a bit much. And, as I’ve discovered, a lot of the US movies just aren’t really that good.

For the record, France scores next highest, with 102 movies; then it’s the UK at 82; then Italy at 42; Germany at 33; Japan 26; USSR/Russia 19; Australia and Sweden 13 each; Hong Kong 12; and Spain and India with 10 apiece. The countries of the rest of the world have less than ten films each on the list.

Think about that: India, which Wikipedia describes as “the largest producer of films in the world”, provides only 1% of the list – and of those ten movies, four are by Satyajit Ray and two by Ritwik Ghatak (both of whom have been critically lauded in the West), one is a silent (and actually by German director Franz Osten), and only three are Bollywood. There is also a single film from Egypt – the largest film producer of the Arabic-speaking world (three-quarters of all Arabic-language films were made in Egypt). While I will admit the only Bollywood films I have seen are two of the three on the list – and I really liked Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge – but I have seen a number of Arabic films – I’m a big fan of Palestinian director Elia Sulieman – though not very many from Egypt.

But then the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list seems to be a weird mix of populist movies and popular auteur films. Some directors appear far too often, some not often enough. There are some films which are historically important, and some which display innovative cinematic techniques. But a good many of the movies on the list really don’t deserve to be on it, and there are far better, and more important, choices the list-makers could have chosen…

And as if in illustration, this post features four US movies from the list, none of which rightly belongs on it.

phantom_carriageThe Phantom Carriage*, Victor Sjöström (1921, Sweden). I can appreciate films that are clearly important in the development of cinema, and while they may prove difficult viewing to present-day audiences, it does not usually take too much of a leap of imagination to realise how the film might have played to a contemporary audience. And so to The Phantom Carriage. I suspect “Pepper’s ghost” was an illusion not unfamiliar to audiences in the 1920s, but to see the cinematic equivalent – double exposure – no doubt impressed because of the newness of the medium. And it’s certainly used to good effect in this film. The story itself is a typical piece of Gothic hokum, although it makes extensive use of flashbacks – which is certainly daring in a silent film. I suspect this is a movie which will need a couple of watches to fully appreciate. Worth seeing.

orphicTestament of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau (1960, France). I really like Cocteau’s Orpheus, the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy, although I wonder how coherent a trilogy the three films make. Testament of Orpheus, for example, is actually Cocteau revisiting the themes and motifs of Orpheus, but without actually bothering with plot, characters or anything else so bourgeois. None of which is especially a bad thing. But Orpheus has the advantage of subtext – one that the film actually makes text at certain points – which is the German Occupation of France. And Testament of Orpheus often turns to the surrealist imagery of The Blood of a Poet, and fails to make good use of it in the context of its story. Cocteau has been travelling through time, but materialises in 1959 and persuades a scientist to kill him with a special gun so that he can remain permanently in that time. But it doesn’t go as planned, and Cocteau finds himself halfway between the real world and a fantasy world in which elements of Orpheus appear – including its characters. There’s plenty of dream-logic at work, which is heightened by the use of camera tricks such as filming in reverse. The use of a sound-stage and assorted ruins as sets only adds to the meta-fictional nature of the film. It’s a talky movie, more concerned with philosophy than drama, which makes for slow viewing. But it’s also a clever film, and makes some witty points about the medium of film and even poetry. I still prefer Orpheus, but this one comes a close second.

glenn_gouldThirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould*, François Girard (1993, Canada). I knew nothing about this film or its subject before watching it. I don’t listen to classical music, and wouldn’t know one eighteenth century composer’s works from another’s. But good documentaries make you care for their subject irrespective of any actual interest you might have had previously. And in that respect Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould succeeds admirably. It is helped by two factors: one, its subject is actually an interesting person, and two, it has chosen to document its topic in an unusual mannner. Glenn Gould was a renowned concert pianist from Canada, but also an insightful and prolific commentator on a number of topics. The film is structured, as its title suggests, as a series of short movies about Gould, ranging from fly-on-the-wall to talking heads to weird animation. And it totally works. Hunt down a copy and watch it.

ballad_narayamThe Ballad of Narayama*, Shohei Imamura (1983, Japan). There are some films that are clearly well-made, admirable even, but something about the story prevents you from liking them. Such is the case with The Ballad of Narayama. It is a nasty, horrible film. Albeit a well-made one. It’s set in a small village in nineteenth century Japan. It is the practice in the village for old people when they reach the age of seventy to walk to a nearby mountain and remain there until they starve to death. And if they won’t go voluntarily… One old woman is approaching her seventieth birthday, and much of the film is about her family as they scrabble to survive in poverty. She has decided she will go with dignity, and so spends her last year arranging her affairs. The various characters are mostly mean and despicable. One smells so bad, no one will have anything to do with him. A young woman with a burn scar on her face will happily sleep with any man, and is treated badly them by all as a result. One man has already tried starving his old father, in an effort to encourage him to head for the mountain. I really didn’t like this film, and I have no desire to ever watch it again.

short_cutsShort Cuts*, Robert Altman (1993, USA). Altman appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list six times – as well as Short Cuts, there’s The Player, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe And Mrs Miller and M*A*S*H. There’s perhaps one that actually belongs there – I’d vote for McCabe And Mrs Miller. Short Cuts, however, is one of those films were a number of intersecting stories sort of, er, intersect and er, prove, well, nothing really. The cast list is impressive, as is indeed the case for most Altman films. The plot, such as it is, involves a series of small stories which cross and intersect , which seems to be an Altman thing, but I can’t barely remember the details – and I suspect some of them I’ve confused with The Player. The problem is that all the stories seem little more than scenes in a larger story, when in fact there is no larger story. So you’ve no real idea what the point of the film is, or what happened to beginning, middle and end. I am all for non-traditional narrative structures, but a braided narrative is hardly non-traditional and for it  to be effective it really needs to be put to good use. Meh.

how_greenHow Green Was My Valley*, John Ford (1941, USA). Because of a little thing called World War II, this movie about a small mining village in Wales was actually filmed in California. And in black and white – so the difference wouldn’t be too obvious. Hollywood apparently also had a problem casting actors who could manage a Welsh accent, as most of the cast sound more Irish than Welsh. Except for male lead Walter Pidgeon. He didn’t even try, he just sounds American. Unbelievably, How Green Was My Valley swept the Oscars in its year of release, beating out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion to Best Picture, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Best Director, and also taking home Best Supporting Actor, Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Black-and-White Art Direction. And yet it’s sentimental tosh. It reminded me in many ways of The Quiet Man – another John Ford film starring Maureen O’Hara – whose high regard I find mystifying. I’ve no idea what How Green Was My Valley‘s source novel is like – I imagine it has plenty of social commentary, which Hollywood has buried beneath layers of schmaltz. And yes, there’s lots of singing…

Artists___ModelsArtists and Models*, Frank Tashlin (1955, USA). I don’t believe this is actually available on DVD – I ended up buying a ripped version of it on eBay for a couple of quid (the seller sent me You’re Never Too Young, another Martin & Lewis film, by mistake, then told me to keep it and sent the right movie). There are many films – and this is becoming an all too common refrain – whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. It’s possible to make a case for Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man – it’s an awful comedy, but the way the camera pulls back and reveals the set as a giant doll’s house is innovative. But I can see nothing in Artists and Models which makes the film in any way interesting or important. Martin plays an out-of-work artist, and Lewis is his comicbook-fan friend. It turns out the artist responsible for Lewis’s favourite character, Bat Lady, lives in their apartment building (her friend, Shirley MacLaine, is the model for Bat Lady). When the artist resigns, Martin applies for the job, using a character invented by Lewis – who dreams the stories, and describes them aloud while sleeping. I find Lewis’s OTT gurning hard to take at the best of times, and he’s in full flow in this movie. Martin is much more watchable – but stick to the Matt Helm films if you want to see him in action. Not a good film.

cabaretCabaret*, Bob Fosse (1972, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz had taken me by surprise – I had not expected to like it as much as I did. Cabaret, I thought I knew more about. I am fairly sure, for one thing, that I have seen the film before, although most likely only in snippets over the past few decades. Sadly, despite my familiarity with bits of it I didn’t take to Cabaret very much. Possibly because Liza Minelli’s character I found annoying, and because it’s impossible to take Michael York seriously as an actor. The musical scenes at the Kit Kat Club were well-staged, although Joel Grey’s emcee was creepily over-the-top. One of All That Jazz‘s strengths was its meta-fictionality, the fact it was a film about making a film, based quite heavily on Fosse’s own experiences – and the final extended dance sequence was the perfect capstone to the high-intensity story which had preceded it. Cabaret, on the other hand, is a straightforward drama enlivened by musical numbers, and not even Minelli, the movie’s setting or its score lifted it for me above other films of its ilk. All That Jazz rightly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’m less convinced Cabaret does.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 681


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readings & watchings 2011 #4

Here we go again – we know a song about that – it’s time for more scrapings from the petri-dish of popular and unpopular culture, as studied under the microscope by Your Scientifically-Minded Correspondent.

Books
Satan Wants Me, Robert Irwin (1999). Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare is one of the best fantasies of the 1980s, and his Night and Horses and the Desert (re-issued as The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature) is a highly-entertaining and informative study of, well, classical Arabic literature. Satan Wants Me – god knows what people thought when they saw me reading this on the tram during my commute to work – is presented as the journal of a hippie sociology doctoral student in early 1970s London. He has recently joined an occult group spun off from Aleister Crowley’s Order of the Golden Dawn. He’s also taking a lot of drugs. And he has some very weird friends. There are some very funny laugh-out-loud bits in this novel – which probably got me even stranger looks on the tram – and it’s sharply-observed throughout. Then it goes completely batshit weird towards the end. While not the classic The Arabian Nightmare is, it certainly confirms my belief that Irwin is a writer very much worth reading.

Cinco de Mayo, Michael Martineck (2010), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here. I’ve known Michael for a long time, though we’ve never actually met in person. We’re both members of an informal critting group, with a couple of other people – i.e., we email each other stories, novel extracts, etc., for comments. So I saw bits of Cinco de Mayo several years ago. But I’d never seen the finished product. I have now, and I enjoyed it very much. And thought it a happily diverse and intelligently put-together story. Definitely worth a read.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (1870). This 1973 edition of Verne’s classic has my name and old school number written on the ffep, which means I’ve owned this book for just over thirty years. So I must have read it at some point. I know the story – everyone does – but is that from actually reading the book, or just from some form of cultural osmosis? This (re)read did demonstrate that there’s much about the story I’d forgotten / not known. It’s very dull, for one thing. There are endless pages listing ocean flora and fauna. Very little actually happens. Aronnax et al go hunting a mysterious sea monster which has been sinking ships. In an encounter with it, they are swept overboard and then rescued by the monster… which proves to be a submarine: Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. The Nautilus sails around the world, and they do things every now and again. Eventually, Aronnax and his two companions manage to escape, and witness the Nautilus being sucked into a giant maelstrom. That’s pretty much it. Some of the science is impressively detailed; in other places it is impressively wrong – the quoted ocean depths, for instance, are out by quite a margin, claiming the deepest part of the Pacific is something like 15,000 fathoms deep – that’s 90,000 feet! Challenger Deep is actually almost 36,000 feet deep – I know this because of this. Still, despite Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea being a bit of a slog to read, I actually fancy trying a bit more Verne. Perhaps I’ve been unduly influenced by David Herter’s Evening’s Empire

Phase Space, Stephen Baxter (2002), is a collection of short stories, many of which are off-cuts from Baxter’s Manifold trilogy. I read those three books back in 1999, 2000 and 2001 – when they were published, in other words. But not Phase Space. I have a lot of time for Baxter’s fiction, both short and long; but this collection was a bit of a disappointment. There’s some good stuff in it – ‘War Birds’, for example, which won the BSFA Award for Best Short Story in 1998 (and unfortunately resembles something I’ve been working on myself; damn); ‘Tracks’, based on an interview Baxter conducted with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke; ‘Moon-Calf’, about a retired astronaut on holiday in south-west England; ‘Barrier’, which is the sort of sf I’d be happy to have in Rocket Science. Unfortunately, many of the other stories follow a similar pattern – the narrative is interspersed with italicised first-person infodumps – and so they tend to blur together. And one or two, well, I was surprised to see they’d originally been published by Asimov’s and Interzone… Phase Space is not Baxter’s strongest collection by any means, but there’s some good stuff in it.

High Vacuum, Charles Eric Maine (1957). I’m currently working on a two-hander review of this and Jeff Sutton’s First on the Moon for my Space Books blog. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to contrast two novels about Moon landings written before the Apollo programme with the real world lunar landings. While I would have said there was plenty of drama in actually trying to get to the Moon, both Sutton and Maine clearly felt what was need for real drama was… a crash-landing.

Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson (1984). I have planned a “cage-fight” – which I will write up on this blog – between this book and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which I will have to read first; sigh). Because Icehenge is a much better candidate for the SF Masterwork series. Some of the world-building is a little quaint now – USA vs USSR – but I’ll be completely unsurprised if I find that Icehenge shits all over the Heinlein.

Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand (1990), was April’s book for my reading challenge and I wrote about it here.

The Silver Chair, CS Lewis (1953), is the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia by publication date, but the sixth book by internal chronology. Useless Eustace and new-found friend Jill Pole escape from bullies at “modern” school Experiment House (dear god, but Lewis shows his reactionary side with his description of the school), because Aslan wants them to find Prince Rilian of Narnia, who was abducted ten years before. Aslan gives Jill four clues, which she manages to screw up, but it all works out in the end. And everyone gets lashings of buttered scones and hot chocolate at the end, or something. These books are a bit like your old Daily Mail-reading grandad telling a bedtime story – the only bits missing are rants against immigration and falling house prices…

Orbital Vol 3: Nomads, Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pellé (2011), is the third book of a bande desinée series published in English by Cinebook. It’s heartland sf, but far more adult than you’d expect of a science fiction “comic.” Earth is a reluctant new member of a galactic federation, after a war with the alien Sandjarr. A pair of special agents, one human and one Sandjarr, must ensure the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur to mark the end of the war, to which a Sandjarr delegation has been invited, goes without a hitch. But a nomadic alien race has settled nearby, and something is killing all the fish and the fisherman are not happy about it… Good stuff.

Films
Barbarossa – Siege Lord, Renzo Martinelli (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Ship That Died of Shame, Basil Deardon (1955), is an adaptation of a Nicholas Monsarrat short story of the same title. The crew of a wartime MGB are re-united when they find their old boat – stripped of her weapons, of course – for sale. So they buy her, make her seaworthy, and use her to run contraband across the Channel into post-war austerity Britain. But it all goes horribly wrong when they accept a job to smuggle a murderer to France. Good solid British film-making from the Fifties.

Tin Man (2007), is a mini-series “re-imagining” of The Wizard of Oz, in which Oz becomes the Outer Zone or “Oh Zee”. DG, not Dorothy Gale, finds herself embroiled in a plot by her evil sister to bring endless darkness to the OZ. DG hadn’t known she had a sister, or that the OZ even existed. But when the Midwest farmhouse where she lives with her parents is attacked by strange men in black uniforms, she escapes through a tornado – discovering as she does so that her parents are actually robots. Because she’s really a princess from the OZ. With the help of a heartless ex-law officer (i.e., a “tin man”), the queen’s old advisor who has had his brain removed, and a cowardly lion-like humanoid – oh, and her old tutor, who can transform into a small terrier – DG must find the Emerald of the Eclipse in order to defeat her sister. An interesting spin on a children’s classic which, to be honest, has never appealed to me; but it all felt a bit meh in places. Though it reminded me a lot of the Sci Fi Channel Flash Gordon telly series – which was cheap and a bit silly, but which I quite liked – it didn’t have that programme’s charm.

Rio Grande, John Ford (1950). I am not, I admit, a big fan of Westerns. In fact, the only one in my DVD collection is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo – which is actually an alternative name for the Rio Grande, the river forming part of the border between the US and Mexico. Rio Grande the film is the third in Ford’s cavalry trilogy, following on from Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, neither of which I’ve seen. It’s John Wayne doing manly men stuff in the Wild West as injuns run rampant and hide out in Mexico where Wayne’s cavalry can’t follow them. Except he does, even though it might provoke a diplomatic incident. Then he learns that the injuns have captured a wagonload of white kids, which only makes the mission more righteous. The US Cavalry must have been the biggest bunch of war criminals in uniform until the formation of the SS, and their portrayal in films such as Rio Grande has only romanticised their crimes. It’s unlikely a John Wayne film would be “warts and all”, given that there’s always been a strong element of fantasy to the depiction of the Wild West in Hollywood cinema. Wayne’s character may be a racist, but he’s still the hero…

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Martin Ritt (1965), is a curiously flat adaptation of Le Carré’s novel of the same name. Richard Burton, who always sounds as though he’s declaiming rather than acting, plays the head of the Berlin office who comes under a cloud when a defection from East Berlin is bungled. He is demoted to a lowly position in London, eventually leaves the “Circus”, and turns to drink and a succession of low-paid jobs. At which point he is approached by East German agents, and reluctantly defects to them. But, of course, it’s all a cunning plot. They’re a bit bloody convoluted these Le Carré films. I have the novel on the TBR; I shall have to read it.

An Autumn Tale, Éric Rohmer (1998). That’s it, all four of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons now watched. In this one, a forty-something woman attempts to matchmake for a winemaker friend of the same age. As does the winemaker’s son’s ex-girlfriend, who has just split up with her university professor lover and who she thinks is an ideal candidate. Unfortunately, most of the characters in An Autumn Tale aren’t especially likable. They prattle and pontificate too much. The ex-girlfriend is particularly annoying – she spouts off lots of arrogant drivel about love and people, but doesn’t actually display much insight. Some poor bloke who gets dragged in as a prospective suitor is horribly mistreated but still hangs in there, though he and the winemaker don’t appear all that well-suited to each other… I first came to Rohmer’s films after watching Triple Agent, and enjoyed its slow-burning drama very much. These Four Seasons films have been… mixed. A Summer’s Tale was easily the best one, with A Winter’s Tale a middling second. A Tale Of Springtime and An Autumn Tale both suffered from unlikable casts. All the same, I’ll be bunging Rohmer’s six Comédies et Proverbes films on the Lovefilm rental list.

Frau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929), I will be reviewing in more depth on my Space Books blog. For the time-being, I’ll just say that it’s badly-paced, with far too much silliness up-front and not enough screen-time devoted to the mission to the Moon.

The Objective, Daniel Myrick (2008), is advertised as being by the director of The Blair Witch Project, which I’ve never actually seen. A Special Forces team of walking clichés, led by a tight-lipped CIA agent, infiltrate the mountains of Afghanistan where satellites have spotted something very strange indeed. If you like films in which US military stereotypes spout manly men bullshit, and then shoot at things, you might find The Objective interesting inasmuch as it’s not wholly a war film: the eponymous, er, objective, is – keep this to yourselves – not of this world. The film felt a bit amateur in places, and probably would have benefitted from a couple of beers inside the viewer.

I Come With The Rain, Anh Hung Tran (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

Aliens From Outer Space, Bill Knell (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Small Back Room, The Archers (1949). Those back room boys… Without them, we’d never have won the war, you know. Though they don’t actually appear to do much in this film. Sammy Rice is one such back room boy. He has an artificial foot, which pains him; and a dependency on pills and alcohol. He’s also in a strange relationship with his boss’s secretary. When a new type of booby-trapped explosive device, dropped by Jerry planes, starts killing children, Rice is brought in to puzzle out how it works. Meanwhile, he’s crawling further into a bottle, politics at the office is causing major problems, and his increasing bitterness is jeopardising his relationship with his girlfriend. Despite some clever photography, the tension and drama in The Small Back Room never quite works, but as a study of a man succumbing to despair during wartime – including a bizarre drunken dream sequence – the film is very effective. The Archers – Powell and Pressburger – were bloody clever filmmakers, and it certainly shows in this. In lesser hands, The Small Back Room could have been just another anodyne WWII home-front melodrama. We need directors like the Archers in the twenty-first century.

Le Refuge, François Ozon (2009), was surprisingly ordinary and a bit dull for an Ozon film. Could it really have been directed by the same person who made 8 Women, Angel or Water Drops On Burning Rocks? Two junkies score some smack, but one dies of an overdose. The other, the dead man’s girlfriend, only just survives. And then discovers that she’s pregnant. The dead junkie’s family, who are wealthy, don’t want her to keep the baby. But she chooses to have it, so runs away to a friend’s house on the coast. A few months later, the dead junkie’s gay brother comes to visit, and ends up staying a week or so. And, er, that’s about it. There are a number of scenes filmed on a beach, in which the woman’s pregnant belly is plainly visible. I was quite impressed by the prostheses and make-up used for this effect, only to learn in a featurette on the DVD that the actress, Isabelle Carré, really was pregnant during the making of the film. You have to wonder if she was cast because she was pregnant; or did Ozon completely rewrite the script on learning she was pregnant? Le Refuge is a likable drama, but Ozon has made much more interesting films.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), I will be reviewing for VideoVista, but I decided to give it an early mention because it’s a pitch-perfect spoof of low-budget action/spy movies, and might well end up on my Best of the Year top five films.