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Moving pictures 2017, #68

Not an especially interesting spread of films in this post, although I did enjoy some of them.

Gold Diggers in Paris, Ray Enright & Busby Berkeley (1938, USA). The Gold Digger series had legs, at least during the 1930s. The first two installments in the series are apparently lost, but it managed a number of films before vanishing into obscurity – although I’m not sure if the series was a casualty of declining audiences or the imposition of the Hays Code. But some of the Gold Diggers films are better than others, and the fact this one is in the second of the Busby Berkeley Collections at least gives a clue as to which it might be… Which is sadly not wrong. France is putting on an exposition and decides to invite ballet companies from several countries. So they send a comedy incompetent to the US, who is tricked into inviting a dance troupe from a nightclub instead of an actual ballet troupe. And, er, that’s it. The US academy of ballet learns they were robbed of the invite and set out to fix things. Meanwhile, the manager of the nightclub dance troupe – and the lead singer of its routines – has to keep the French authorities unaware of his his dancers’ true nature. It’s mildly amusing, and not at all probable, and some of the dance routines in the final act are okay. And the Schnickelfritz Band, who perform several numbers, are actually pretty good. I do like these Busby Berkeley musicals, but some of them are so much better than the others. I’d love to see them in colour. But you take what you can get, and what you can get is worth seeing at least once.

Festival Express, Bob Smeaton, (2003, UK). I don’t really know enough about documentaries to put together a rental list of ones I should watch, so I picked a bunch whose subjects sounded like they might be interesting. And one of the subjects I like is music of the 1960s and 1970s. The title of this film refers to a train hired by a concert promoter in 1970 to transport several bands across Canada to appear at gigs in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. The promoter provided a carriage with all the equipment for jam sessions, and the idea was the various bands would play music as they travelled. Which they did. They also drank a lot. A lot. And it was all filmed. But the film was held up for years by rights disputes, and then lost, before resurfacing early this century, and all the parts put in place to release the 1970 footage as part of Festival Express. The documentary consists of interviews from 2003 with those who were on the train and are still alive, as well as film shot at the time of the jam sessions, events on the train and at the gigs at the various cities. If you like the music of the time – Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Grateful Dead, The Band, and so on – it’s a pretty good documentary. There’s some good concert footage – and more in the special features – and some of the jam sessions are especially good. The “let’s put a groupie’s chest on the cover” art is less good. But don’t let that put you off. Worth seeing.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Luc Besson (2017, France). I’ve been reading Jean-Claude Mézière and Pierre Christin’s Valerian and Laureline series since the 1990s – one or two in French initially, but then in English as Cinebook began publishing translations of each volume. So when I heard Luc Besson was making a film featuring the two characters – it could hardly be described as an “adaptation” of a 21-volume science fiction bande dessinée – I was pretty stoked. Besson may be a bit and miss as a director, and, to be honest, more miss than hit, but his previous attempt at space opera, The Fifth Element, had been lots of fun. But then the reviews of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets began to roll in and… oh dear. It sounded like he’d made a right pig’s ear of it. But I was famliar with the source material, and most reviewers apparently were not, so I decided to reserve judgement until I’d seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for myself. And… oh dear. Let me say straightaway, it looks gorgeous. It’s a total CGI-fest, and shows a great deal of imagination in the CGI creatures and aliens it presents. But. The Valerian and Laureline series is about, well, Valerian and Laureline. And that’s where Besson’s movie mostly falls flat. In the bande dessinée, Valerian mostly resembles Belmondo (with maybe a soupçon of Lazenby thrown in) and Laureline is basically Bardot with red hair. So the casting of DeHaan and Delevingne is absolutely mystifying. The two characters’ relationship also develops over the course of the series, with Valerian the competent Galaxity agent and Laureline the unsophisticated young woman he rescues from Earth’s past… only for Laureline to turn out to be much more competent of the two, and her use of Valerian as “muscle” becomes a running joke. There are flashes of that relationship in Besson’s movie, but mostly it seems to be Valerian as a hormonal fifteen-year-old boy and Laureline as a seventeen-year-old girl who has already seen it all. And both played by actors that are plainly in their twenties. There are other weird bits. Like the bizarre appearance of an Apollo CSM in the final sequence – but it’s not a real Apollo CSM, as it has a glass cockpit. So what’s that about? And the actual plot, where an area in the centre of Galaxity, sorry Alpha Station, is impervious to sensors, but turns out to hide the Pearls who survived genocide in the opening sequence… Well, it’s all a bit confused and the timelines don’t really add up. But then French films, and especially Besson’s films, are infamous for leaving important elements of the plot on the cutting-room floor. Pace, apparently, is everything in France. The band dessinée series, on the other hand, is very very big on common sense and narrative logic. It is one of its virtues. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has lots of pace. It is indeed headlong. It does not have much continuity or common sense. I can only hope this film persuades the film-making world that Mézière’s and Christin’s series is a good property for adaptation. And that whoever attempts it next does a better job.

Little Caesar*, Mervyn LeRoy (1930, USA). This was apparently Edward G Robinson’s first appearance on film as a gangster, a role he would occupy for much of his career. Which is, I guess, mildly interesting, but not a good reason for the film to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Because as far as I could tell, that seemed to be the only thing about Little Caesar that was notable. Especially when you compare it to contemporary gangster films like Scarface. Robinson is keen to claimb the gangster ladder, which is what he does. He works his way up to top dog, but then things start to go wrong and he goeson the run and ends up a drubk living in a doss house. Until the DA starts making public statements calling him a coward, and because these sorts of characters are so one-dimensional all it takes is threatening their manhood to force them out of hiding, so Robinson makes an attempt on the DA’s life and is defeated. Yawn. There are some seminal gangster movies from the 1930s, but I fail to understand why this is considered one.

Le château de mère, Yves Robert (1990, France). This is the sequel to Robert’s La gloire de mon père and, like that film, is also based on an autobiographical novel by Marcel Pagnol, and is in fact the adaptation of Pagnol’s sequel to La gloire de mon père. So, the same characters, the same general situation, roughly the same period, certainly the same place… and a slightly different plot. The boy, who’s the narrator of the films, is put forward as the school’s representative in some sort of academic competition, and so needs to study hard. Meanwhile, the family decide to return to their holiday home, but this entails a 3-hour walk from the railway station. Until, one day, they’re surprised by a canal guard, who has access to all the gardens through which the canal runs and so provides a shortcut which makes it a 30-minute walk. So the family start using the shortcut. They’re accosted by one of the property owners, but he’s happy for them to trespass. A guard on another property is less forgiving and reports them. La chaâteau de ma mère is more of the same, pretty much. A rose-tinted version of Provence during the 1920s, a soupçon of social commentary, lots of nostalgia, and lots of shots of Provençal landscape. It was every bit as dull as La gloire de mon père, although some of the humorous scenes were better. Not being French, I don’t understand the appeal of these films – but then I don’t understand the appeal of Heartbeat or Last of the Summer Wine and I live in Yorkshire…

You’ll Never Be Alone, Álex Anwandter (2016, Chile). I’ve no idea where I came across mention of this film. I suspect I added it my list because it was a recent drama from Chile and available for rental. Given that my previous experience of Chilean cinema is Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries (and if you’ve not seen them, you must), I had no real idea what to expect. What I got was… surprisingly brutal. A man is the manager of a factory that makes shop window dummies. He has worked there for 25 years and feels he should be a partner in the business, and so has been persuaded by the owner to invest some of his own money in order to buy partnership. His son is openly gay. One night, his son is attacked by some local youths who know him – including one who has been fucking him – and put into a coma. The man has to spend the money he planned to invest in the company on his son’s medical bills. And then, the factory owner sells the mannequin factory to a rival company. His son is racking up expensive medical bills – millions of pesos – and his twenty-five years of loyalty are apparently worth shit. So he does something about it. This is a grim film, and the gaybashing which is its most dramatic moment is horrible and brutal. And, of cource, because that’s how these things go, the perpetrators are not even charged as there are no other witnesses than the victim, even though everyone knows who did it. When the father confronts one later in the film, the youth seems more scaredof being caught than ashamed of what he has done, even though he took advantage of the gay son by having sex with him. You’ll Never Be Alone is worth seeing, but for god’s sake, watch something cheerful after seeing it.

1001 Movies You Must See You Die count: 894

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Moving pictures, #44

More viewing, only one from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list this time, and it’s an American film… although, once again, half of the films below are from the US. I need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch.

idahoMy Own Private Idaho*, Gus Van Sant (1991, USA). The only thing I knew about Gus Van Sant prior to deciding to work my way through the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list was that he’d made a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Which sounds like an interesting exercise, except, well, that’s pretty much what a play is, the same story with a different cast. And since I’d seen Hitchock’s film a number of times and was familiar with it, Van Sant’s experiment proved even more disappointing. Van Sant’s most-famous film, however, is My Own Private Idaho, which, okay, I may have heard of before, but knew nothing about. And it turns it’s about a pair of street hustlers, played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, except Phoenix has narcolepsy, and Reeves’s father is rich and the mayor of Portland. Oh, and the story is roughly based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays… which is fine as far as it goes, but when Van Sant starts using Shakespeare’s dialogue it really doesn’t work. Having Reeves call the Falstaff figure, Bob Pigeon, “a horseback-breaker, a mountainous tub of lard”, just sounds really silly in 1990s Oregon. In fact, it’s the Shakespeare-isms which spoil My Own Private Idaho. Okay, so Reeves’s character is not entirely believable (make him actual royalty, though, as Shakespeare did, and it weirdly seems okay), although it does make for an effective ending. But it’s that mix of Rechy’s City of Night and old Bill’s Henry IV Part 1, etc, which doesn’t gel. It’s like oil and water, or even a lava lamp. It’s just too obvious when Reeves et al start spouting the Bard’s couplets, and it upsets the balance of the film. I can see how My Own Private Idaho might appeal to some, but it wasn’t a movie I rated highly.

holidayHoliday, George Cukor (1938, USA). An early screwball romance starring Cary Grant and “box-office poison” (as she was at the time) Katharine Hepburn? What’s not to like? Quite a bit, according to audiences when it was released. Grant plays a man who plans to quit his job as soon as he can afford to and do nothing, and Hepburn plays the sister of his fiancée, who is stinking rich. This was during the Great Depression. Hollywood: super-sensitive, as usual. Grant meets Doris Nolan while on holiday in Lake Placid, and the two get engaged. He doesn’t realise she is filthy rich and the youngest daughter of an eminent New York banker. He turns up to the family home, learns the truth, but manages to charm the father and so get permission to marry. But it seems Nolan is a bit of a stuffed shirt, and it’s her libertine sister, Hepburn, who’s a better match for Grant. This one is early in Grant’s career, so he hasn’t got the polished urbanity of later films. If anything, he’s a bit of a galumpher, more of a tail-wagging puppy. Hepburn is Hepburn – did she ever change? – and it’s hard to believe she was ever box-office poison. By all accounts, this film did much to rehabilitate her. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon provide excellent comic relief as Grant’s best friends, a pair of cycnical academics. Both stars, and director, made much better films, but Holiday has its moments. It’s not great, but if you’re into films from the era, it’s probably worth seeing. But I can understand why it flopped at the box office.

rivetteMerry-Go-Round, Jacques Rivette (1983, France). I watched Rivette’s La belle noiseuse, because it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it very good; and then Arrow Academy released a limited edition Blu-ray collection of some of Rivette’s films, none of which I knew anything about… but the collection was a limited edition, and I’ve learnt to my cost previously it’s best to buy things like this straight away because when you finally come to realise you want a copy they’re either not available or cost silly money. So I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection. On the basis of having seen a single film by the director. So it goes. And yet there’s nothing in Rivette’s movies that immediately appeals to me. They’re well-crafted, certainly; and very French. And, er, very long. Especially the centre-piece of this collection Out 1 – 12 hours and forty minutes! fucking hell – which I admit I have yet to watch. In fact, I’m working my way through the the collection in installments, beginning with Merry-Go-Round, which clocks in at a mere 2 hrs and 40 mins. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. A woman sends a telegram to her sister in Rome, Léo, and an ex-boyfriend in New York, Ben, asking them to meet her at a hotel in Paris. But when they turn up, she’s not there. They follow a series of clues and end up at her old home, where she tells them that her father, who died two years previously after embezzling $4 million, isn’t dead. And then she’s kidnapped and taken away in an ambulance. There then follows an almost dream-like quest, in which Ben and Léo try to track down the not-dead father and his millions. Much of this involves running through woods. Including being chased by a knight on horseback. Or exploring empty houses, particularly ones where doors give onto different landscapes – breaking that compact between director and viewer in which the spaces depicted on screen connect in a logical and plausible manner. (Sokurov does something similar in Faust, by having characters enter the frame from parts of the space the camera has already shown do not have entrances.) So the world of Merry-Go-Round doesn’t quite follow the “rules”, but then neither does the quest narrative. There are long extended scenes which do nothing to advance the plot. There are also plot-holes. And interludes in which two odd-looking blokes play noodley jazz on double bass and bassoon. In parts, Merry-Go-Round feels like an early-1980s L’Avventura – or rather, it sets up an expectation of being a 1980s L’Avventura, perhaps on little more than its lack of plot momentum. I am, on balance, glad I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection (it’s still in stock! Get it now while you can! Only 3,000 copies!), and I think they’re films which will bear rewatching, if not demand it; but I’ve a way to go yet before I call myself a Rivette fan.

ladyThe Lady, Luc Besson (2011, France). Of all the subjects about which Luc Besson might make a film, I must admit a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi is not one I’d ever have guessed. But then, in many respects, The Lady doesn’t feel much like a Besson film. There’s a moment of almost cartoon-like violence when paramilitaries of the former prime minister assassinate the Executive Council (ie, the government-in-waiting for when the British withdraw), including Suu Kyi’s father. But in most other respects, The Lady is pretty restrained. Michelle Yeoh is especially good in the title role, and if David Thewlis was a bit too thespian as her husband, it didn’t detract overly much from the film. I will admit to knowing only the broadest details about Suu Kyi and Myanmar, and so films such as The Lady are eye-openers. Seriously, military juntas are not governments. The UN could surely make a legal, ethical and moral case for overthrowing such governments. But, of course, military juntas are excellent customers for arms dealers, and selling weapons is what it’s all about in the twenty-first century. The UK is now second only to the US as a seller of armaments. Mostly to the same countries we bomb or which have created the current refugee crisis. If you truly did reap what you sow, this country would neck-deep in salt.

streets_of_fireStreets of Fire, Walter Hill (1984, USA). I had vaguely fond memories of this, after seeing it back in the 1980s, so despite its somewhat negative reputation I thought it might be worth watching. And having now seen it… I think my memories were a little imprecise. It looks great, mostly, no doubt about that; and the music, while of its time, is quite listenable. But that script. It’s fucking awful. It’s totally misogynistic, and it puts words in the mouths of its cast – Rick Moranis, especially – they should have been embarrassed, if not fucking offended, to speak. Diane Lane plays a rock star who is kidnapped by a bike gang led by Willem Dafoe. A young woman persuades her ex-soldier brother, Michael Paré, an ex-boyfriend of Lane’s, to come home and rescue the rock star. And it pretty much goes as you’d expect. I’d hoped time had been kind to Streets of Fire, that it’s 1980s macho posturing might seem more like kitsch thirty years later. It hasn’t. Rick Moranis snarling misogynistic comments at the camera is still a horrible thing to see. Paré does his best with a bad part, Dafoe does even better with a worse part, but Lane does nothing with a nothing part. Visually, the film still scores, and its influence on later films is easy to see. But the reasons why it flopped it 1984 are also obvious, and not even thirty years is going to make it a cult hit.

mr55Mr & Mrs 55, Guru Dutt (1955, India). The more of Dutt’s films I watch, the more I appreciate them. Admittedly, this was not a good transfer – BFI, why are you not all over Dutt’s films? – and the plot was pretty much a Hollywood staple (never mind a Bollywood staple), but even so… Rich playgirl Anita is living the high life but then discovers she has to marry before the age of 21 in order to inherit seven million rupees. And she only has a month to do it. She approaches her friend, tennis pro Ramesh, but he’s off to Wimbledon. In desperation, her mother pays cartoonist Dutt Rs 10,000 to marry Anita, with the promise of a quickie divorce soon after. Of course, the two fall in love after the ceremony. But then careful lying by the mother ensures each thinks the other doesn’t really love them, so the divorce goes through… But they get together and realise they do actually love each other after all. It’s all keyed off American signifiers of success – not just Anita hanging around a posh tennis club and worshipping pro Ramesh at the beginning – but also the trappings of wealth enjoyed by Anita’s family are familiar to Western audiences. And yet, there’s also something indefinably Indian about it – and I don’t mean the fact it breaks into song at assorted moments. It feels like an Indian film based on a Hollywood template, by someone who was quite aware of, and more than capable of using, the story patterns of both Indian and Hollywood cinema. Dutt makes good films. He really needs transfers worthy of his work.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 795


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Moving pictures, #2

More marathon movie watching. I’ll keep the notes on each film short this time, otherwise I’ll end up writing more about films in 2015 than I will books or science fiction…

deepend2dDeep End*, Jerzy Skolimowski (1970, Germany/UK). This was an odd beast. A film set in Britain, with British stars, performed in English, but actually filmed in Germany, using German actors to fill out the cast, and by a Polish director. John Moulder Brown is a bit of a blank as the schoolboy who goes to work at the baths, but Jane Asher is good as the female attendant who’s using the job as a springboard to more. Munich stands in for London quite well, although there are odd moments that seem strangely not-English. Story-wise, it’s nothing new or innovative, just the usual mix of teenage lust and prudery, all a bit Holden Caulfield-ish, although it does turn interesting toward the end. Still, a good film. Definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

night_of_silenceNight of Silence, Reis Çelik (2012, Turkey). Set in rural Turkey, a man in his sixties returns to his village after serving a prison sentence and in order to end a feud between two families, he is married to a child bride. The film takes place entirely on their wedding night. What follows is a sensitive portrayal of both parties – the old man didn’t want the wedding, and he won’t do anything his new bride won’t have of him. But he is also expected to perform. The child bride, of course, doesn’t want to be there at all, and is frightened about what she expects will happen. During the night, the man reveals why he was sent to prison, and it’s unpleasant. Despite all that, Night of Silence succeeds because it treats its topic sensitively and shows how abhorrent it is, without making monsters of its characters. Worth seeing.

herHer, Spike Jonze (2013, USA). A man installs a new OS on his computer and phone, then customises its interface so he finds it more appealing – except rather than just choosing a nice desktop wallpaper, moving a few icons around or selecting a theme, this involves selecting a nice voice and a variety of interests and personal facts, sort of like for a dating agency. And because the man has designed himself an OS personality which will appeal to him – which proves to be, somewhat implausibly, some sort of sophisticated AI – then of course he finds himself liking his OS’s personality very much. Like a girlfriend. Except for the “girl” bit, or indeed any kind of physical presence. And then he discovers that his OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, has instantiated herself an uncountable number of times for other users. I thought this film a bit dull – and, since I work in computing, I’m always wary of movies whose stories depend on it and usually find them wholly unconvincing.

12_angry_men12 Angry Men*, Sidney Lumet (1957, USA). Essentially, a courtroom drama that, er, doesn’t take place in a courtroom. The jury have heard the evidence and closing arguments, now they have to reach a verdict. Except before they do that Henry Fonda pretty much builds a case for the defence, which is what the defendant’s attorney should have done in the, er, courtroom. End result: reasonable doubt. And the “obviously guilty” perpetrator is found innocent. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about the US system of justice… until you remember what it’s really like. Also, note the lack of women on the jury.

aliceAlice*, Jan Svankmajer (1988, Czech Republic). I’ve a feeling I’ve seen something by Svankmajer before, but I’m not really sure – and given the singular nature of Svankmajer’s vision, you wouldn’t think I’d forget. Ah well. As the title suggests this is Svankmajer’s take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it sticks pretty much to the plot of the book. But some of the visuals are really disturbing. The White Rabbit, for example, belongs on that Bad Taxidermy twitter feed, and its glass eyes haunted me for a couple of nights after I’d seen the film.

transformers4Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay (2014, USA). Every time I think Hollywood has plumbed the depths of stupid, it manages to surprise me and dig a little deeper. I’m trying to remember the actual plot of this film, but all I have is some vague memory of Optimus Prime as a junked-up truck in an old theatre – no mention of how they got a big fuck-off truck (or a big fuck-off robot, for that matter) into the theatre – and something about a bounty hunter Transformer that’s working with nasty generic national security apparatus to kill all Transformers, but of course they’re really working with the Decepticons. Or something. I do remember the terrible broad-brush racist characterisation, the casual disregard for people’s lives, the way the Transformers were “rebooted” with shiny new paintjobs, and the corporate villain (Stanley Tucci, the only watchable actor in the entire film) doing a Jubal Harshaw when he’s introduced with his blonde, brunette and black-haired personal assistants. Mostly, however, I don’t remember why I watched the bloody thing in the first place.

bowling_columbineBowling For Columbine*, Michael Moore (2002, USA). I often wonder if the USA realises that the rest of the world thinks its attitudes to guns is insane. Not the entire country, of course – as Moore demonstrates in this film. He explores US gun culture, and tries to work out why so many more Americans are killed each year by firearms than in any other nation on the planet. I’m not entirely sure I agree with his conclusion that big business and the media feeds the US populace a solid diet of fear and paranoia, and that this is chiefly responsible. While it’s true Canada may have as many guns as the US, and significantly less gun deaths, pretty much every Anglophone nation’s television is a solid wall of FUD masquerading as news and entertainment. Still, Moore asks some important questions – and, unsurprisingly, he remains unanswered.

SplendorSplendor In The Grass*, Elia Kazan (1961, USA). It’s the 1920s, Warren Beatty is a dim high school football star, the son and heir of a rich oilman. Natalie Wood is a nice girl from a much less affluent family who is going out with Beatty. Oilman wants Beatty to go to Yale and then take over the business; Beatty wants to marry Wood and run the family ranch. Beatty’s sister is a flapper and a girl with a bad reputation. Beatty feels urges but doesn’t want to Wood to be like his sister, nor does she want to be like the sister. The two go their separate ways. Then the Great Depression hits, and oilman is reduced to penury. Later, Wood goes looking for Beatty, who is now happy running the ranch, and is married and a father. This is one of those worthy historical (as in, early twentieth-century American) dramas Hollywood used to bang out during the 1950s and 1960s as Oscar bait. It was nominated for two – best actress and best screenplay, but only won the latter. Didn’t find it all that interesting. I like a bit more melo- in my mid-twentieth century drama.

lucyLucy, Luc Besson (2014, France). I’m convinced this is a comedy, played absolutely straight by its cast. Those opening shots of cheetahs hunting, the sort of ham-fisted cinematic metaphor that were considered old when they introduced sound. The central conceit: we’ve known for decades that humans using only ten percent of their “cerebral capacity” is complete bollocks. Also, amongst Lucy’s first set of powers is the ability to talk to someone in another country using their television… Which is not to say Lucy isn’t an entertaining action-sf-comedy, and some of the special effects are quite effective. Johansson is good in the title role, particularly in the first half where she’s still, well, human. And Morgan Freeman demonstrates why he should handle the exposition in every single film Hollywood ever makes – I mean, he talks complete bollocks, but he actually makes it sound plausible.

thin_red_lineThe Thin Red Line*, Terrence Malick (1998, USA). If I had to pick a favourite WWII film, and I’m not a fan of WWII films, it would have to be Das Boot. But I thought this was very good. From the opening, when a pair of deserters on a Pacific island are recaptured by their company to Nick Nolte’s idiot colonel, determined to prove himself against younger men who have been promoted above him, not to mention the company commander who believes his responsibility is to his men and not to whatever random tactical objective he is ordered to meet. WWII films traditionally present pretty straightforward moral landscapes – GIs good, Japanese bad; Allies good, Nazis bad – but The Thin Red Line shows the US soldiers just as far from the moral high ground as their enemy. Not to mention their general ineptitude. All too often, wars are presented as if everything went smoothly, casualties were, if not expected, certainly unavoidable, and the good guys won because better fighters. It’s all complete crap, of course; and it’s refreshing to see it applied to WWII (it’s pretty much a cliché in Vietnam films, of course).

unearthly_strangerUnearthly Stranger, John Krish (1963, UK). I’m not really sure why I bunged this on an Amazon order, there must have been something in the description which persuaded me it might be worth seeing. It wasn’t a bad call. It’s a melodramatic Brit sf flick, with plenty of stark lighting and Dutch angles, not to mention a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia – although, perhaps in this case, it might be “sex war paranoia”. A scientist on a secret project fears for his life after the mysterious death of his predecessor, and it turns out the scientist’s “Swiss” wife has a number of unusual characteristics – she sleeps with her eyes open, she appears to have no discernible pulse, and she can handle burning hot objects with her hands. A nicely creepy film that just about manages to stay convincing, despite its outlandish premise.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 555


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The best of the half-year: 2012

It’s halfway through 2012, and it must be shaping up to be one of the wettest years on record in the UK. But that’s okay because my hobbies are chiefly indoor ones – reading books, watching films and listening to music. I occasionally do a bit of writing too. But, since we’re in June, with around six months to go until the end of the year, it’s time to look back and determine what was the best of what I read, watched and heard in 2012. And it goes something like this…

Words
I seem to have read a lot of books that were good without being great; and possibly a larger number of books that weren’t good at all. Picking the best five proved harder than expected, though one or two titles were obvious…

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011). Jones has been my favourite writer for many years, so this collection’s appearance on the top five is no surprise. I had, in fact, read most of the stories in The Universe of Things before (I even published one; sort of), but rereading them only cemented my admiration of them. Jones has not written many stories, but there are no clunkers among them. This collection is an excellent introduction to her fiction. I wrote a review of the book for Daughters of Prometheus.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008). I’ve long admired Evans’ fiction, but he seemed to stop writing after 1995’s Mortal Remains… until Omega four years ago. I won’t say it was worth the wait, because it’s never good when a writer whose books you enjoy and admire disappears for more than a decade. But certainly Omega is a good book, a clever alternate history dimension-slip thriller partly set in a world where World War II continued on throughout the twentieth century. I wrote about Omega on my blog here.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987). This year for my reading challenge I decided to read books by non-Anglophone writers I’d never read before. The Door was the second book I read for the challenge, and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the challenge has got a little bogged down of late – I failed to finish March’s book, read April’s book late, and have yet to even start May’s. Anyway, I wrote about The Door on my blog here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963). I read the first book of the Raj Quartet for one of my reading challenges, and thought the book was superb. As a result, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I track down to read. In first edition. The Bender predates the Raj Quartet and is not as weighty as those four books. It’s a very 1960s comedy, but also a beautifully witty one. I wrote about it on my blog here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994). I’m surprised this book isn’t better known. It’s an amazingly-put-together series of stories which form a much greater story. It opens with a series of Victorian travellers, trapped on a train by snow, who tell each other stories… and then proceeds to unravel and then stitch together the stories told by those travellers. There’s a superb take-down of a cult semiotician, a clever spoof of the Scottish detective programme Taggart, and a brilliant pastiche of Jeffrey Archer. Perhaps the links between the stories aren’t quite strong enough to carry the story-arc, but Betrayals is a very clever, very amusing, and excellent novel.

Honourable mentions go to Eastermodern by Herta Hurnaus, Oscar Niemeyer Houses by Alan Weintraub and Building Brasilia by Marcel Gautherot, which are books of photographs of modernist and brutalist buildings. Niemeyer’s work perfectly encapsulates the future we could have had, and all cities should resemble Brasilia. Also worthy of note are How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which every writer and critic should read; Alias Grace, which is probably Margaret Atwood’s best novel; and Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place by Malcolm Lowry, a collection by an author new to me which contains some excellent novellas and some not so interesting short stories.

Pictures
I’ve already visited the cinema twice so far this year, which is something of a record for me. One of the films I saw in IMAX 3D makes it onto my top five; the other one was rubbish, so it doesn’t. The other films I’ve seen were all on DVD – some borrowed, some bought, and some rented.

Red Psalm (Még kér a nép), Miklós Janscó (1972). I bought this after seeing a review of the DVD in Sight & Sound. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t a group of hippie-looking Hungarians wandering around a farm spouting socialist rhetoric and singing folk songs, and then getting shot at by soldiers. I loved it. I wrote about Red Psalm on my blog here.

Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), Michelangelo Antonioni (1964). I’ve admired Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura several years ago. Red Desert was his first film in colour, and it shows – it’s an amazingly painterly film. Unlike in most films, the characters do not over-shadow their world but are very much a part of it. It creates a distance between viewer and cast, but there’s an immersive quality to the mise en scène which renders that of little importance. Films don’t need viewer analogues – that’s just confining the medium to the simplicity of oral storytelling: films use images just like books use words, and that’s where their focus should lie. I wrote about Red Desert on my blog here.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків), Sergei Parajanov (1965). I watched Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates last year. That film is perhaps the zenith of “poetical cinema”, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is definitely a way-station on the climb to it. It is, on the face of it, a simple story of one young man’s trials and tribulations. He is a member of Ukrainian Hutsul culture, and the film is rich with its costumes, music and traditions. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is by no means an easy film to watch, however, as it operates on so many levels – but it at least has a coherent plot, which is more than can be said for The Colour of Pomegranates.

On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie), Andrzej Żuławski (1978/1988). If you can imagine a film that out-Tarkovskys Solaris, then you might have some idea of what On the Silver Globe is like. It’s based on a trilogy of novels published in Poland in 1911 by Jerzy Żuławski, which have apparently never been translated into English. On the strength of this film, they should be. It’s probably evident that I’m not a huge fan of traditional Hollywood-style cinema; it often feels to me like a waste of the medium’s potential. And yet films such as Red Psalm and On the Silver Globe, with their declarative dialogue, often feel like they’re only partway to what film could truly be. I like the painterly mise en scène of poetical cinema, but often find the declarative dialogue as clumsy as science fiction’s crude use of exposition. And so it is in On the Silver Globe – characters run around and gurn at the camera, and then speechify on the meaning of life. However, it’s in the story and the imagery that the film really impresses – enough, in fact, to offset the fact the film was never completed – much like Andrzej Munk’s Passenger. The Polish Ministry of Culture closed down the production of On the Silver Globe when the film was only 80% complete. It was ten years before Żuławski returned to it, and then he could only complete it by using stock footage and voice-over for some parts. It works surprisingly well. I plan to write more about On the Silver Globe on this blog.

John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). John Carter received a mauling at the US box office, so much so it was officially declared a flop by its studio, Disney. Happily, the world outside the US had more discerning taste and went to see the film in sufficient numbers for it to eventually turn a profit. But the profitability of a film is measured solely on its performance at the US box office – which is both dumb and parochial – so it’s unlikely a sequel to John Carter will ever be made. Which is a shame. John Carter was a spectacle, with a clever script that managed to make something twenty-first century of its early twentieth-century source material. It had its flaws – some longeurs, and an inelegant info-dump to explain the plot – but other parts more than made up for it. I wrote more about it on my blog here.

Honourable mentions go to , Federico Fellini (1962), which after seeing La Dolce Vita many years ago and disliking it, I had expected to hate – I didn’t; I loved it. Troll Hunter, André Øvredal (2010), was another deadpan Norwegian spoof and cleverly done, though not quite as good as Norwegian Ninja. The Third Part of the Night, Andrzej Żuławski (1971), was the first Żuławski I saw, and it’s off-the-wall Hitchcockian style appealed to me greatly (as did Andrzej Korzyñski’s superb soundtrack). Went the Day Well?, Cavalcanti (1942), was a surprisingly brutal piece of wartime propaganda in which a German fifth column try to conquer a small English village. It goes badly. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec, Luc Besson (2010), gets a mention as an entertaining adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s bande dessinée, and though it’s completely silly it was great fun. Finally, some quality telly: Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), which has not dated at all, and is still great entertainment despite being completely bonkers; and Caprica (2010), which promised so much more than it ever got the chance to deliver.

Sounds
I knew from early this year that 2012 was going to be good for music. Perhaps few of my favourite bands are releasing albums, or touring the UK, but I’ve stumbled across some bands new to me that have been on almost constant play on the iPod.

Dwellings, Cormorant (2011). The band self-released this last year and it’s a powerful mélange of half a dozen metal genres. I loved it from the first listen, and even went back and got copies of their earlier two albums.

The Devil’s Resolve, Barren Earth (2012). This is the superband’s second album, and it’s a heavier and yet proggier effort than their first. The riffs are not quite as memorable as they are on The Curse of the Red River, but the lead breaks are much more impressive, and the proggy break-outs even stranger. Opeth’s Heritage proved there was a market for 1970s-inspired weird Scandinavian prog, and Barren Earth have taken that and melded it with Scandinavian death/doom to create a winning combination.

The Weight of Oceans, In Mourning (2012). I saw a review of this and it sounded appealing, so I ordered a copy from a Finnish website. It’s death/doom in that way the Finns do so well, but with added slow modern progginess. It’s not proggy like Barren Earth is proggy, inasmuch its acoustic parts feel more of a piece with the heavy parts. I’ve been playing it constantly since it arrived.

Nostalgia, Gwynbleidd (2009). Another band I came across mention of and who I thought I might like. So I bought the album. And yes, I do like them. Very much. They’re a sort of mix between Opeth and Northern Oak, but also not much like either. There are long sustained death metal parts, interspersed with folky acoustic guitar, and it all hangs together exceedingly well.

Legacy, Hypnos 69 (2010). I’ve been a fan of Hypnos 69 since hearing their The Intrigue of Perception several years ago. I’s taken me a while to get hold of Legacy, chiefly because it was released by a small label in Germany and wasn’t available in the UK. Recently I discovered it was on bandcamp, so I bought it from there. It’s Hypnos 69 doing Hypnos 69-type stuff, and I love it.

Honourable mentions go to Finnish death metallers (Psychoparalysis), who have self-released three excellent EPs; Weather Systems by Anathema (2012), which I much prefer to the previous album; Wood 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light by Woods of Ypres, which is folky black metal that sounds a little like Type O Negative in places  and includes strings and oboe; and finally, All Spawns, a recent compilation of Czech death metal pioneers Apalling Spawn’s two released from the late 1990s (now, if I can only find a copy of the Sparagmos compilation, I’ll be really happy…).