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Best of the half– fuck, what a year it’s been so far… year

2020 has certainly been a year for the history books. True, more people died in the early decades of last century, but that did result in actually intelligent people being in charge for a while. But then old habits kicked back in and the British once again mistook privilege for intelligence and the US once again mistook the possession of wealth for intelligence, and so both countries now have the worst and most inept governments in living memory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the pandemic. I’ve spent most of this year so far cooped up indoors. And all my holidays plans – conventions in Stockholm and the Åland Islands – were cancelled; and ones later this year – in Reykjavík and Copenhagen – may also come to naught. You would think that working from home and not socialising would mean I’ve spent the last six months readings tons of books and watching shitloads of films. Sadly, no. Which has made this best of the half year both easier and harder – easier because there’s less to choose from; harder because there were no real stand-outs, just an even split between good and bad. But here goes, anyway…

books
To date, I’ve read 49 books, of which ten were rereads. Female authors accounted for 43%, and male authors for 47%. The remainder were graphic novels and non-fiction. Half were by British authors, a third by US authors, and the rest from Sweden, New Zealand, Israel, France, Belgium and Canada. The oldest book I read was first published in 1923, and the most recent was published this year. The best five books read in 2020 so far are…

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). From a relatively easy to understand premise – a group of “superheroes” taken from late Victorian/early Edwardian fiction – this extended series has turned increasingly metafictional as it has progressed. And every piece of British fiction sooner or later references Shakespeare. And if you’re going to do that, and you’re genre, why not go for the big one, The Tempest? (It’d be King Lear for other genres, I suspect; but A Comedy of Errors for, er, comedy.) This latest installment of The League of Gentleman doesn’t just up the metafictional states, it also functions as a history of UK comics. I can understand the motives behind this – and I’m well aware it’s something Moore has tackled many times in other properties – but certainly the breadth of British comics doesn’t seem so well-known – US comics: superhero comics … UK comics: everything from the Bash Street Kids to Dan Dare to Judge Dredd to Susan of St Bride’s to Lord Peter Flint…

2 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve been a fan of Russ’s fiction for many years, and a fan of Jones’s writing for considerably longer, and in hindsight the two have a great deal in common. The science fiction of both is intensely feminist, although in Russ’s fiction it feels more combative – but claiming that’s a consequence of its time is too easy an answer, because while Russ may have been earlier, the war is far from over, even 65 years after the publication of Russ’s first story in 1955. Jones provides an overview of Russ’s life, and then discusses her fiction, both short and long. This book does what all good books of its type should do: it makes you want to go back and revisit the subject’s works. I finished Joanna Russ wanting to reread Russ’s stories and novels. Job done.

3 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). Tidhar has spent a lot of time exploring alternative Israels and, sadly, history has given him plenty of plausible alternatives to explore. In Unholy Land, the Jews are offered land in Uganda by the British – which really sort of happened – and they accept the offer and call it Palestine. But Tidhar can never tell a straight alternative history, there has to be some sort of spin. In Unholy Land, a science fiction author returns to this Palestine, except he’s not from that reality, and his presence changes things. For all that this is not new territory for Tidhar, it’s good stuff. I’m also pretty sure one of the stories written by the sf author in the novel is the first sf story by Tidhar I ever read.

4 Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). It’s not just sentimentality that earns this novel its spot in this top five  – it’s the last of the Bernie Gunther books, as Kerr died the year before it was published – but as the last book in what has been an excellent series, and one of the better entries in that series, it definitely earns a place. Yes, there is a link with Lang’s film, but it’s pretty tenuous (Gunther is interviewed by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s scriptwriter and wife, and suggests the plot which becomes M). Metropolis covers Gunther’s career in its very early years, specifically an investigation into two serial killers, one who kills prostitutes and one who kills WWI veterans, and it’s excellent stuff. If you’ve not read these books, you really should give them a go.

5 Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). This is previously-mined territory for Charnock as Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as A Calculated Life and The Enclave. In fact, the opening chapters of the novel were previously published as The Enclave. Charnock presents a future UK suffering from both climate change and the migrant crisis, but also a world split into haves and have-nots where the distinguishing item is a brain chip allowing direct access to, well, something probably not unlike the internet – but without the trolls and fake news and shitstorm social media. Bridge 108 is a bit like Law and Order – a format I’ve used myself – as the story is carried forward from one character to the next. Science fiction which interrogates our world is becoming increasingly rare – indeed, science fiction which interrogates its own world seems on the wane – so we should value such novels when they do appear.

Honourable mentions: The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK), a trunk novel rewritten as a sequel to The Green Man’s Heir, and while it’s a bit, er, bitty, it’s a fun read and a good instalment in a series that deserves to continue; The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK), the Hitchcock connection, to be honest, is a bit of a red herring, as is the crime which opens the story, but this is a typically Robertsian exploration of political conflict between two worlds, in this case the real and the virtual, which on reflection seems particularly British; A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA), a short collection of metafictional pieces by an author who probably writes the best prose of any US genre writer currently being published; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), the third and, sadly, final, volume in the adventures of the Athena Club, a female-only group of fictional characters from Victorian literature, and, while it doesn’t celebrate the metafictions it explores, this trilogy is pleasingly metafictional; Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK), Ballard meets Greene in strange adventures in an alien zone in South America, which succeeds because it’s on strong on atmosphere and appropriately vague on rigour; Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK), after rabbits Adams turned to secondary-world fantasy, and managed something that is more literary than is common for the genre, even if it wasn’t published as genre per se, but is just as grim and bleak.

films
I bought a dozen Blu-rays with me when I moved here and I’ve still not watched them all. Admittedly, one is 17.5 hours long, so it may be a while yet before the shrinkwrap comes off that one. I’ve not watched any Swedish TV this year, but then I was never a fan of Midsomer Murders. But I have been binge-watching several sf TV series. After finishing off Stargate SG-1, I moved onto Quantum Leap. And there was a season of Space: 1999 in there somewhere as well- and that definitely didn’t match my fond memories of it. There were also some newer series, such as Watchmen, Avenue 5 and For All Mankind, of assorted quality. And then there were the films…

This year, I’ve seen 198 films, so slightly up on last year. Two-thirds were new to me. A third were from the US, slightly less than a third from the UK, and the rest from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (including the USSR), South Africa, South Korea and Sweden. China, India and Italy were the top three among those – that’s a lot of Jackie Chan and Shaw Bros movies, Bollywood films and gialli. The best films – and one “limited event series” – I watched in 2020 so far are…

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember watching some of this back in the 1990s – I’m pretty sure I did, although I left the UK in March 1994 and it was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 1993, which would have been my only chance to see it… So perhaps I didn’t it. I certainly knew of it. And at that time I likely thought it hugely self-indulgent – 79 minutes of a single shot of International Klein Blue? But I’ve now watched it several times, and I find it an extremely moving film. Plus, I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice for weeks.

2 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). I’m surprised I’d not come across this film sooner. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the name Labaki is not unknown to me. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to find the sort of films I like these days. New releases on streaming services seem to dominate social media, and Amazon’s search engine is notoriously useless. And I no longer subscribe to either LoveFilm (which is defunct anyway) or Cinema Paradiso, which was one way of finding new films that might interest me… Fortunately, I stumbled across Capernaum on Amazon Prime, a film about how the West has comprehensively fucked up the Near East, as told through the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy who stabs a man who buys his eleven-year-old sister as his wife (and she dies in childbirth), and the boy wants to sue his parents for having him. This is harrowing stuff, and a film that should certainly be better known.

3 In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). Skarsgård plays a taciturn Swede living in Norway who has just been made Man of the Year of his small town. Then his son is found dead of an overdose, except Skarsgård is convinced he never touched drugs. (He was actually murdered by a drug dealer.) Skarsgård investigates and works his way up the drug cartel hierarchy, killing off each person he finds, and inadvertently kicking off a gang war between the Norwegian drug dealers and a gang of Serbian drug dealers. This is the blackest of comedies and it’s perfectly pitched. The head of the Norwegian gang, a pony-tailed Vegan, is an excellent comedic character. Bizarrely, some of the characters spoke Swedish, some Danish, and the rest Norwegian. Which resulted in a somewhat weird viewing experience.

4 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks since it was first broadcast on British TV. The one thing I never thought it needed was a third season. And, to be honest, I’ve sort of gone off David Lynch’s movies. So expectations were mixed when I started watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, as it was branded in the UK. And… The second season of Twin Peaks ended in a very strange place, and this third season takes that and runs with it. It’s almost impossible to summarise or make sense of the plot. Most of the original cast return, including several who had retired, but especially notable in this season was the cinematic quality of camerawork. The original two seasons of Twin Peaks were television soap opera, and both looked and felt like a – somewhat bizarre, admittedly – television soap opera. But the third season often looks and feels like a string of arthouse films. There’s that famous theme tune, and lots of familiar faces, but watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series is a bit like watching the entire oeuvre of an alternate world David Lynch.

5 Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A middle-aged divorcee decides she has spent long enough on the shelf, and begins to enjoy a social life. She meets a man of the same age, and they start seeing each other. But he’s still tied to his kids, and he can’t let them go and enjoy their relationship. Middle-aged women are not a common subject of movies – and particularly not, you would have thought, in South America – so such films should be treasured when they do appear. It helps that Gloria is so good. It’s mostly a one-hander, but Paulina García is excellent in the title role (and won a Golden Bear for it). Again, like the other two non-Anglophone movies above, this was a lucky find. I’m glad I found it.

Honourable mentions: Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China), highly entertaining kung fu action/comedy that starts in Hong Kong then moves to Tokyo; Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway), two nobodies who clean up after deaths get more than they bargain for when they discover a hulder, a Scandinavian forest satyr, in a dead man’s bunker; Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco), a movie with an amateur cast of Moroccan kids who decide to give one of their own a fitting funeral after he dies in a senseless gang fight.

albums
No albums, I’m afraid. I’ve spent most of the last six months listening to playlists on Spotify. Some I created myself, some myself and colleagues put together, and others I found on Spotify. If I had the time, I could probably pick five best songs I’ve stumbled across in 2020, but that would be a monumental task and I don’t track the music I listen to like I do the films I watch and the books I read. But perhaps by the end of the year, I may have found some albums new to me in 2020 worthy of a top five.


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Movie roundup 2020, #8

Another in the current batch of Movie round-up posts. Two more and I should be up to date with, or at least not too far behind, my actual viewing.

Love on the Run, François Truffaut (1979, France). Truffaut’s final film about Antoine Doinel, and it makes it no clearer what Truffaut was trying to achieve with these movies. Especially since this last one is partly a clip-show of scenes from the earlier movies. Featuring the many women in Doinel’s life. And that’s pretty much the plot of Love on the Run, Doinel having a string of affairs, and flashbacks showing his past affairs. He is, of course, married for much of this. Perhaps it’s a French thing, but I find Doinel thoroughly unlikable and not in the least bit charming or sympathetic. I like many of Truffaut’s films a great deal, but I really did not take to this series. I suppose I should have guessed this would be the case as I watched The 400 Blows in, I think, the 1990s, and didn’t watch another Truffaut film for over ten years. But as I explored his oeuvre so I found films I liked.

Domino, Brian De Palma (2019, Denmark). Two Danish cops in Copenhagen, played by Danish actors, but speaking in English, respond to a domestic violence call, but surprise the murderer of an immigrant grocer… who proves to have lots of explosives and weaponry stashed in his flat. The murderer kills one of the cops and escapes, but is then picked up by the CIA. The grocer was a member of ISIS, and the murderer is out for revenge on the ISIS chief who executed his father. The surviving cop goes rogue and follows the killer, now controlled by the CIA because they want the ISIS chief dead too, to Spain, where he manages to foil a bomb plot. De Palma has always been a poor man’s Hitchcock, but some of his films haven’t been too bad. This one, unfortunately, is terrible. Not content pretending the Danes all speak English, it also characterises all brown immigrants as either terrorists or killers. The evil CIA man also feels like a cliché too far. Avoid.

Tomboy, Walter Hill (2016, USA). This one of those films you’re surprised ever got made because its premise is such a bad idea. A hit man kills a playboy with a gambling debt on contract. The playboy’s sister is a self-confessed genius renegade doctor, who specialises in plastic surgery and gender reassignment. And runs an underground clinic after losing her licence for experimenting on people. Where she is found, mutilated and surrounded by her dead staff, by the police. The film is told in in flashback as the doctor is interviewed in an asylum over what happened. It transpires she located the hitman, had him kidnapped, and performed gender reassignment surgery on him. Now a woman, the hitman is trying to figure who did it to her. This such a bad take, I’m amazed no one said to any of those involved – and though the film is B-list, there are some big names in it –  that perhaps this was a film they shouldn’t make. It’s not like without the dodgy central premise it’s any great shakes as a thriller. Sigourney Weaver chews major scenery as the mad doctor. Tony Shalhoub is running on autopilot as the psychiatrist interviewing Weaver. And Michelle Rodriguez tries her best with a role that fails to convince in all its aspects. Avoid.

Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China). A Hong Kong policeman interrupts a bank robbery while on the way to his wedding photographs, which causes his starlet fiancée to break off with him. And gets him demoted to the evidence locker. He puts on lots of weight. He is then tasked with taking a Japanese film-maker back to Japan. Unfortunately, the film-maker has amnesia after an accident. Equally unfortunately, he fled Tokyo after accidentally filming some Yakuza demonstrating how they’re using fresh fish to smuggle drugs. And they saw him. And the Tokyo police (according to the film) are all corrupt. Oh, and his ex-fiancée is also in Tokyo, fronting some business celebration for the semi-senile head of the selfsame Yakuza clan. As plots go, it’s pretty standard for the genre, although surprisingly anti-Japanese. However, the fight choreography is excellent. In places, it’s a mix of parkour and kung fu, and it’s all highly entertaining. The opening sequence, in which the cop fights the bank robbers inside the van they’ve stolen as their getaway vehicle, is brilliant. Watch it.

Return to the 36th Chamber, Lau Kar Leung (1980, China). The second of a loose trilogy from the Shaw Brothers. The boss of a Cantonese dye works employs some Manchurians and cuts his workforce’s wages to pay for them. The workers object, so he has them beaten up. They persuade the con-man brother of one of the dyers to impersonate a Shaolin monk to scare off the Manchurians. It doesn’t work. So the con-man tries to infiltrate the Shaolin temple, and fails. The abbot makes him re-roof the temple as penance. It takes him a year, but during that period he more or less trains as a Shaolin monk, so when he returns to his brother he uses his new-found skills to defeat the dye works owner and the Manchurians. This was pretty much what it said on the tin, but it was more entertaining than a lot of Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen. One for fans of the genre, but a good example of it.

Drunken Master, Yuen Woo-ping (1978, China). A Jackie Chan vehicle, although he’s the student and not the eponymous master. The plot is inconsequential, it’s all about the fight sequences – and they’re done really well. It even popularised a style of kung fu. A young man keeps on getting into trouble, and after being rescued by a drunkard in a restaurant, becomes his student. Meanwhile, a business rival sends a kung fu fighter to beat up the student’s father, but the student arrives in time for a climactic fight. Apparently, it was after this film that Chan began to give his movies generic titles in order not to give away the plots. Although there was a Drunken Master II (AKA The Legend of Drunken Master) and the not entirely related Drunken Master III.

Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Stanley Long (1976, UK). The first of a trilogy of British sex comedies, three words which should strike fear into the heart of any cineaste. Barry Evans, the teacher from Mind Your Language, stars as a black cab driver in London, and the film recounts his – mostly sexual – adventures. It’s pure mid-seventies British comedy, with sex scenes, with all the cringe-inducing elements that entails. Interestingly, Ingmar Bergman’s daughter, Anna, has a minor role as a stripper, and it seems her entire acting career involved British sex comedies in the seventies. Entirely missable. There were two sequels: Adventures of a Private Eye and Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate.

Swallows and Amazons, Claude Whatham (1974, UK). Watching this, it occurred to me that the worldview of the upper middle classes is pretty much constructed from works such as Swallows and Amazons, which is set in the 1930s, and that’s been pretty much true right up to the end of the twentieth century. Their whole identity is ninety years out of date. It would explain much, especially the UK’s political scene. In Swallows and Amazons, it is 1929, and a family of posh kids are on holiday in the Lake District. Their father is a RN officer on a destroyer in the Far East. Their mother allows them to use a dinghy and sail about the lake and camp on a small island in the middle of the lake. They get embroiled in a “war” with two girls who also have a dinghy, and they’re all naively patronising to everyone not of their class. The girls’ uncle lives on a houseboat and is targeted by local burglars. He thinks the kids did it, but they manage to prove otherwise, and help the uncle retrieve his property. And everyone has ice cream and plays jolly games. I was surprised to discover Ransome wrote another eleven books in the series.

Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway). Two guys work for a services that cleans up after dearths. They’re sent into one property, find a Cold War bunker in the garden, and in it a strange young woman with a tail who cannot speak. They investigate further and discover the man whose bunker it was experimented on the woman. Soldiers turn up, and then these weird creatures appear from the forest and kill the soldiers. The creatures are apparently hulder, which Wikipedia describes as “a seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore”, although it’s not clear from the entry if there’s only one of them or an entire race. Thale was an entertainingly weird horror film, although the opening scenes are a bit grim.

Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A divorcee with grown-up children in Santiago starts going to bars to find companionship and takes up with a divorced man with grown-up children. They get on well together. But he seems to have a habit of disappearing on her, especially one of his daughters rings, which culminates with the woman throwing his mobile phone in the soup while they are staying for the weekend in a luxury hotel on the coast. He goes off and doesn’t come back. She goes off on the piss and falls asleep on the beach. When she returns to the hotel, he’s checked out and taken all her things. You don’t see many films centred on middle-aged women, and even less that treat their subjects with sympathy. Gloria not only manages both, it shows that its eponymous character, and people like her, can define their own happiness. Good film, worth seeing.