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Moving pictures 2018, #5

I swore I’d wouldn’t be posting just reviews of films all this year, but I had bad flu for a week, which meant I watched a lot of films and did very little blogging. So I’ve a backlog to clear. One more of these and I’ll up to date, and hopefully after that, their frequency will decrease… and lots of other content will start appearing instead. Hopefully.

Princess from the Moon, Kon Ichikawa, (1987, Japan). The only other Ichikawa film I’d seen before watching this was The Burmese Harp, which is excellent. So I expected good things of Princess from the Moon, despite the awful title and cover art. Sadly, the latter were indicative of the contents. As the title suggests, a baby arrives myteriously – well, in a meteorite – in Japan, and a family adopt the baby and bring her up as their own. It’s the Superman origin story without the superpowers. Okay, with the superpowers. Because the young woman does have strange powers. However, unlike Superman, she is eventually reunited with her people when a UFO, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or is it ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, comes to Earth and she departs on it. Meanwhile, she proves so popular among the local menfolk, and indeed further afield, that she has to set them tasks in order to manage their advances. The film aparently did not do well and, despite the presence of Toshiro Mifune as the man who discovers the “princess”, it’s not easy to see why. The tone is all over the place, and Ichikawa adds nothing to a well-used story. Apparently, the dragon was originally going to double as the Loch Ness Monster in a Hammer film but the project fell through.

Viva, Anna Biller (2007, USA). I’d rented Biller’s The Love Witch on a whim, and been impressed enough by it to add her first feature film, Viva, to my rental list. It’s nowhere near as polished a piece, and in many respects a much less subtle pastiche. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – Biller is certianly a singular talent, devoted to pastiching 1970s aesthetics and B-movies, but with feminists sensibilities. It can make for an uneasy mix. While her sensibilities are unimpeachable, her dedication to the look and feel of the films she’s spoofing does tend to place them closer to their inspirations than the twenty-first century. Biller plays a Los Angeles housewife in the early 1970s who, with a friend, is persuaded to expand her sexual horizons by moonlighting as an escort (using the name “Viva”). There are a lot of very stilted conversations between the characters, and everything is colourised to an eye-bruising degree. Later, Viva ends up at an orgy, and it’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a Russ Meyer, although without the focus on women’s chests. The end result is far less clever than The Love Witch, and embarrassingly gauche in places, but certainly shows what Biller is about and attempting to do. Seen before The Love Witch, I suspect it might misinform viewers as to Biller’s intentions; seen after it, the films feels like a work in progress. She will go on to amazing things, I’m sure of it. Viva is part of the process.

A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). My previous experience of Imamura, The Ballad of Narayama (see here), I really did not like, but I suspect I added A Man Vanishes to my rental list based on the description rather than the name of the director. And I’m glad I did. The film starts out as a straightforward documentary on the case of a Japanese salaryman who simply disappeared. Bu then the documentary begins to question its own remit, and in a scene toward the end, the set is demolished around the filmmakers as they discuss what they have filmed, revealing the documentary itself to have been a fictional construct. It is astonishingly meta, and astonishingly informed about its own nature. I’m not sure what to make of it – it deconstructs itself from the inside in a way that I had frankly not thought within the vocabulary of 1960s film-makers. It’s clever in a way that far too few films are, and even fewer documentaries are. I thought it excellent.

Die Puppe, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I think it was this film, of all the ones in this box set, which persuaded me to add it to my shopping basket during Eureka’s Boxing Day Sale. Ossi Oswalda plays the daughter of a toymaker who takes the place of a life-size doll bought by the local baron’s son who needs to marry but is not interested in doing so. So he marries the doll. Which is not a doll. He only married her because he had fallen under the spell on a local friary who hoped to use the dowry to fund their gluttony. So of course they’re a bit upset when it transpires the doll is a real woman. And he falls for her, so they’ll be keeping the dowry, thank you very much. Like the previous film in this set, Ich möchte kein Mann sein (see here), Die Puppe is played strictly for laughs, and Oswalda in the title role makes the film. It’s a thin premise, and not especially plausible, but the movie totally commits to it. It’s a more stagey film than the earlier one, with the action taking place on what are clearly stage-sets – and that includes the town square which features in the opening. Fun, but one for fans of silent movies, I suspect.

Dekalog*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1989, Poland). In terms of Polish cinema’s exposure to the English-speaking world, Kieślowski is a giant. Poland had a huge film industry, and has produced a great number of world-class directors, many of which have been released in Anglophone markets. So quite why Kieślowski has come to be seen as the quintessential Polish director is something of a mystery, especially given the paucity of his oeuvre compared to others such as Andrzej Wajda or Agnieska Holland. The same, I suppose, might also be said of Satyajit Ray and Bengali cinema – Ray is comprehensively released on DVD on the UK, but none of Mrinal Sen’s movies are available in UK releases. But then Ray had Ismail Merchant proselytising for him in the West, probably because Ray was helpful toward Merchant and Ivory during the early days of their career. I don’t know that Kieślowski did the same for an Anglophone director, but I’ve seen no evidence he did. Which does make his selection as the face of Polish cinema somewhat inexplicable. He’s good, there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ve come to feel, middle-brow and you’d expect a director with such a high profile to be more, well, cerebral. But then perhaps Kieślowski’s reputation was formed by his TV work, which this box set has shown is superior to his feature film work. The Dekalog itself, ten one-hour long episodes, each of which illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, and all of which are set in the same block of apartments in Warsaw. Some are better than others; some are even somewhat opaque, with a far from obvious link to the Commandment they are intended to illustrate. Two of the episodes, five and six, were later remade as feature films, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. They’re probably the two strongest episodes. This box set was definitely worth getting, just as much for the TV films and special features as for the Dekalog series itself.

Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi (2016, USA). The US is very good at making films that show racist it once was but which reveal how racist it still is. On the surface, Hidden Figures cannot be faulted – women of colour were involved in the US space programme and they have a story worth telling, if only to show people they were involved. But in an effort to create drama, Hidden Figures creates situations which undo the achievements of the people it is trying to celebrate. It’s not as blindingly obvious as Kevin Costner ripping down the “Whites Only” sign on the women’s toilet, an entirely invented scene since the NASA facilities were not segregated so there was no need of a white saviour… but also the fact the film’s event are implied to take place during the late 1950s when Katherine Johnson is promoted to the Mercury Task Group, but she had been made a supervisor over a decade before in 1948. There’s no doubt the contribution of women of colour, or indeed women, to the Space Race has been forgotten, if not outright written from history; but the real histories of these people are dramatic enough without having to make changes. The fact the US practiced segregation some fifty years ago is frightening, and yet not all that much has changed – hence the need for films such as this. Black people have been so written out of history – US especially – they cannot see themselves in it, despite their many and varied and important contributions to it. They are there, doing their bit, and only a racist or a fool would say otherwise. On the one hand, I think Hidden Figures‘s purpose is admirable and I welcome the film’s existence; on the other, I rue that it has to exist in the first place, and that it has to warp history to provide a narrative acceptable to the public. But it’s not a great film, and I suspect you’d get more from the book on which it was based.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-p

3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

Zoline-Tree

5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

beau-travail

2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

burmese-harp-blu-ray-cover

Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

Oranssi_Pazuzu-Valonielu

3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

Cormorant-Earth-Diver

Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.