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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

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Moving pictures 2018, #17

After a month of watching mostly television series – the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, a season of Rebecka Martinsson, the latest series of Endeavour and Shetland… – I had expected my movie consumption to slow down a bit. But it doesn’t appear to have done so. So I’ve got three or four of these to post before I’m caught up. I know, I know… I promised this year wouldn’t be repeat of last year, with just posts about the movies I’d watched – it was even a New Year’s Resolution, FFS – but I still find myself consuming lots of films… On the plus side, SF Mistressworks is up and running again, and I’m back reviewing for Interzone. Now I just have to start writing some critical posts, and maybe even write some of that made-up stuff, you know, fiction

Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, USA). I read Vandermeer’s novel last year, but never bothered with the two sequels, even though they made a nice set. To be honest, it’s not a novel I would have thought open to a film adaptation, so when news that it was indeed being turned into a movie surfaced, I was surprised. And… it’s turned out to be a bit of a Marmite movie. It’s not the book, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It dials back on the much of the strangeness, which is also not necessarily a bad thing. It remains strange, and its “Shimmer”, the film’s version the book’s “Area X”, does much the same job. There’s something about it all which reminds me a little of Apocalypse Now or Embrace of the Serpent, but that may be just the fact it’s an exploration story. On the plus-side, Annihilation has an all-female cast, and it’s presented as perfectly normal, and more films should be like that.

The Fencer, Klaus Härö (2015, Estonia). This was apparently based on a true story, a teacher who upset the authorities in Leningrad and so moved to Estonia, where he ended up teaching kids, many of them orphaned by the Nazi occupation, how to fence. So it’s a bit like Dead Poets Society (I still cringe every time I hear “O Captain! My Captain!” after that film), which I suspect is just one version of a story that goes back considerably farther – Goodbye, Mr Chips, anyone? – perhaps even to ancient Athens or Rome. Anyway, by teaching these kids in 1950s Estonia how to fence, the hero gives them self-respect and ambition, and also jeopardises his own freedom. Because they want to enter a competition in Leningrad, but if he returns there he’s likely to be arrested by the secret police. You can guess what happens. It’s apparently based on a true story, an Estonian hero from the days of Soviet occupation. Not a bad film.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts (2017, USA). Spider-Man, Spider-Man, just as annoying as a teenager can, er, be… It was certainly refreshing to see a Spider-Man re-re-re-reboot aimed at the actual demographic matching Peter Parker’s rather than that of the people who remember reading him when he debuted in a Marvel comic… Peter Parker has been on a mission with Iron Man, but now it’s back to school and he can’t wait to be called up again to help out the Avengers. Except they never call. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton sees his lucrative contract to clean up alien tech after The Avengers (AKA Avengers Assemble!) taken over by a shadowy government department. So he becomes the Green Goblin. I think. He flies, and he’s sort of evil. Oh, and he’s the father of the girl Peter Parker really fancies and wants to take to the prom. I hate that: when the girl you fancy has a supervillain for a dad. Total bummer. To tell the truth, I hated the selfie video opening of Spider-Man : Homecoming, but really enjoyed it once the film had settled down into its story. The third act, unfortunately, was the usual MCU bollocks, which was a shame. But overall I enjoyed it and I hadn’t really expected to.

Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA). See there on the DVD cover where it quotes from a review, “his funniest film by far”… because of course it’s fucking hilarious pointing out that the US is a completely fucked-up country run for the benefit of a rich handful on the misery of millions – which is pretty much also what the Tories want here, and have been driving the UK toward. Moore visits half a dozen European (and one African) countries and investigates one of their social policies, interviewing ordinary people and asking how they feel about it. He does this as part of a running joke about “invading” the country, because the US military hasn’t actually won a war since WWII. The countries he visits are: Italy, to learn about paid holidays and maternity leave; France, for school dinners; Germany, employee rights; Portugal, decriminalisation of drugs and abolition of the death penalty; Norway, the prison system and rehabilitation; Slovenia, free university education; Finland, which has the best pupils in Europe; Tunisia, women’s rights, free healthcare and abortions for women; and Iceland, the role of women in business and government. None of this stuff is difficult to understand, but apparently Michael Moore had to make a film about it so that Americans would get it. I remember some moron from the US tweeting something like “hate speech laws are immoral and public healthcare is imprudent”. FFS, it’s the twenty-first century.

Anna Boleyn, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). The title alone should be enough to indicate what this film is about. Lubitsch does a silent version of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. (Why “Anna”? I don’t know.) Emil Jannings plays the king and Henny Porten the title role. The story seems to stick reasonably closely to the historical record, although the depiction of Henry VIII follows the usual bullshit portrayal of a carousing fat man, who enjoyed wine, women and hunting, and not the despot he really was. They say he killed more people during his reign than any other English monarch. Much as we Brits – well, English, but I don’t really think of myself as either – like to think well of Henry VIII for breaking the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, let’s not forget he only did it because he was a serial adulterer. Although, to be fair, the Roman Catholic Church has hardly been a force for good throughout the centuries, so booting them out was a good thing. A shame Henry VIII didn’t go the all the way and ban religion altogether.

Attraction, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2017, Russia). Commercial cinema in Russia has been churning out some solid sf blockbusters in recent years – not to mention films about its space programme – and Bondarchuk is a name known to me. His The 9th Company from 2005 was a good film about Soviet troops in Afghanistan; and 2008/2009 Dark Planet (AKA, The Inhabited Island) was an interesting adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Prisoners of Power, which was annoyingly cut by almost half in its English-language sell-through release. Attraction has been described as YA, and perhaps it is, although it doesn’t feel much like YA properties such as Divergent or Maze Runner. An alien spaceship crashlands in a suburb of Moscow, the local youth take advantage of the alien tech thrown off during the crash, while the military tries to control the situation. One of the aliens – they only look alien in their armour, they’re really human underneath – is attacked on a scouting mission, escapes, and is helped by a young woman (it stands to reason he’s a cute guy). And, ho hum. The alien ship rebuilds itself – it attracts water to itself, for, I think fuel. See what they did there… attraction. The film looks good, the sfx are impressive, the cast are, er, attractive, and it’s all very Russian. You could watch worse. But I hope Bondarchuk’s next movie is better than this.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896


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Moving pictures 2017, #66

I managed to knock a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and despite them both being US films – one Hollywood, one independent – I thought they earned their place on it.

Mr Arkadin, Orson Welles (1955, Spain). After making Macbeth, most of Welles’s remaining films were made in Europe with international financing. It’s perhaps a bit of a cheat to describe Mr Arkadin as a Spanish film, given it was English language, had an American director, and featured a cast including Americans, Italians, Germans, Brits and Spaniards, among others… but it was shot mostly in Spain, and Welles was resident there at the time, so… The story opens with a private plane flying into Spain with no one aboard and presents it newsreel-fashion as a mystery, which the film will then solve… by telling the story leading up to that moment. Robert Arden is an American knocking about in Spain, who inveigles himself into the affections of the daughter of reclusive billionaire Arkadin, played by Welles in a bad wig and beard. When Arden finally meets Arkadin, he’s offered a job – Arkadin cannot remember his life before 1927, and wants Arden to research it for him (the reason given is so that no nasty surprises turn up when Arkadin bids for military contracts). So Arden tracks down past associates of Arkadin, ending up in Mexico, where he discovers the truth about the man. And the truth about why he was asked to research the man’s past. Arden heads back to Spain to tell the daughter, Arkadin charters a plane in an effort to stop him. He fails. Apparently, there are several cuts of the film knocking about, some better than others, and none what Welles really intended. The end result is something that tries to be The Third Man, with bits of Shakespeare thrown in, all shot in Welles’s inimitable style, and then edited so it teeters on the edge of sense. Welles overplays his role, Arden is not a sympathetic hero, and the supporting cast  are more like circus performers than actors. But it’s Welles, so it’s worth seeing.

Roger & Me*, Michael Moore (1989, USA). I know of Michael Moore, of course, and the career he has carved out for himself. I’ve seen seen a couple of his films. But I’d never seen the one that started his career, and since it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… So I bunged it on the rental list. I wasn’t expecting much of it – Moore has tackled much more contentious subjects in later films, and given that this was his first too, I expected it to be crude and simplistic. And while it was certainly the latter, it was never the former. It’s a surprisingly polished piece of work. Unfortunately, recent events have pretty much underminded it. Flint, Michigan, was the town where the automobile production line was invented, and it has relied heavily on car manufacturing ever since. But in the 1980s, the automobile corporations decided to cut costs by closing down plants in the USA and opening them in much cheaper countries. This is known as “making the product cheaper while taking away the spending power of the market which buys it so your business eventually collapses and oh look guess what happened…” Around a third of Flint’s carworkers found themselves out of a job. This is painted as devastating to the community, well, some parts of the community, the country club set are completely oblivious of course… which is why Moore wants to beard GM chairmain Roger Smith and ask him to defend his decision. In the film, the workforce is cut from 80,000 to 50,000 over slightly more than a decade. True, this is bad for any community which relies on a single industry. But as of 2015, GM has 7,000 workers in Flint. And, of course, the city is better known now for its poisoned water supply. A city in the US without fit drinking water for much of its population the three years and counting. And the US still think it’s a world leader. Ha.

Zardoz, John Boorman (1974, Ireland). I think I last saw this back in the 1980s, but it’s one of those sf films you tend to know a lot about if you’re into sf without actually having to have seen it all that often. I mean, you either absorb the plot – or major points of it – through osmosis, or it’s extremely memorable. I’m noty entirely which is the case. Okay, so Sean Connery in a Zapata moustache and red nappie is pretty memorable. And so is the flying head which appears on the Blu-ray cover-art. Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, whose job it is to, well, exterminate Brutals, who are the debased remnants of the population after some catastrophe (although they seem to wear 1970s clothing). Meanwhile, there are the Vortexes, safeguarded by forcefields and in which live the Eternals, the immortal descendants of a group of scientists who chose to safeguard all human knowledge. Zed hides away in the floatibng head and is taken to one of the Vortexes. During the flight, he kills Arthur Frayn, the Eternal who controlled the floating head and looked after the Exterminator/Brutal programme. In the Vortex, Zed is studied, and discovered the be more intelligent than the Eternals. Because they’re sort of Eloi, they’re weak and decadent and many of them have drifted into catatonia. But Zed shakes them up. And they needed it, because they were going nowhere. I know plenty of sf fans count this as a favourite, and it has sort of dippy 1970s charm to it – and I’m a fan of many things from the 1970s – but it’s hard not to reach the conclusion Zardoz is more style than substance. Bits of it are borrowed from all over, not least the book/film it directly references. And asking the viewer to believe Sean Connery is more intelligent than Charlotte Rampling or John Alderton… Well, suspension of disbelief only stretches so far. On the other hand, some of the shots of the Irish countryside are really impressive, and the production design does a lot with very little – although does a look bit like a BBC production at times. I’m glad I watched it again – and can do so whenever I want, as I bought the Blu-ray in the eureka! sale – and it’s certainly true there are shitloads of worst sf films. But there are also a lot of better ones, and it’s never going to make it into my top ten.

Varsity Show, William Keighley (1937, USA). So  I tracked down a copy of the Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 2 on eBay, and it was cheap – and, when it came, it has to be said, a bit battered, but never mind. It’s also not as good as the first collection. But I knew that going in. In Varsity Show, Dick Powell is a washed-up Broadway writer who is co-opted into helping out his alma mater with their annual variety show. He’s doing it because he needs the money, and they want him to running things because the fuddy-duddy in charge is sure to produce a piss-poor show. Powell is on form, and some 0f the female cast shine, but it’s also one of those films where twenty-somethings are referred to as “kids” and the musical numbers aren’t especially memorable. The “kids” rebel, of course, and end up occupying a theatre in New York in order to put on their show. Which is where it turns into your typical Busby Berkeley number. And they really were astonishing. Okay, there’s a leap of imagination required when a dozen dancers on a tuny stage suddenly turns into hundreds of dancers on a massive soundstage… but the way it does that kaleidoscope thing with the dancers is often mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the final scene, in which the theatre’s owners send the police, who sit down to listen to the show, and then the National Guard, who takes seats to watch the show, and, well, you can guess the rest. Varsity Show has a weak story but it manages a good Busby Berkeley extravaganza at the end.

The Phenix City Story*, Phil Karlson (1955, USA). This was a hard film to track down. Despite being on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t appear to have ever been released on DVD, and certainly not in this country. But I found a copy on eBay, from one of those sellers who sell DVD rips of out-of-copyright movies, and it proved to be a pretty good transfer. And a pretty good film. There are two cities either side of a river: Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama. There is a street in Phenix Citty lined with casinos and brothels, and the gangs who run them pretty much control the town. That is, until they inadvertently convince a popular lawyer to run for state attorney general on a ticket to clean them out. And when they kill him, his warhero son takes them on instead. Interestingly, the film opens as a documentary, with a journalist interviewing people involved in the clean-up of Phenix City. It’s only about 15 minutes in that it becomes a traditional narrative cinema film. The gangsters aren’t very convincing, and it’s all a bit Wild West in places – although apparently it’s based ona true story. It’s also pretty brutal, far more than you’d expect from a mid-1950s movie. That aside, and despite a somewhat sensationalist tone, The Phenix City Story proved a lot better than expected, and might just about deserve its slot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman (1973, Sweden). I bought the Criterion edition of this a while ago, which includes both the international movie release and the original Swedish television series. And it was the latter I watched. Of course. Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson are a happily-married couple. He’s an academic, she’s a family lawyer. At least, they’re happy when the series opens. They’re being interviewed by a magazine and they discuss their marriage openly. And later, when friends comes round for dinner, the friends’ unhappy marriage is contrasted with that of Ullmann and Josephson. Except, as the following five episodes show, it’s not all sweetness and light. There are several shocking incidences of violence, which really should not have been acceptable even in 1974. Josephson leaves Ullmann for another woman, but then tries to rekindle his marriage – and he’s really quite horrible about his girlfriend. Eventually, the two separate, and then meet up years both married to other partners… and they have an affair. Josephson’s character is quite a nasty piece of work, and Ullmann seems far too accepting of his actions – although she does use them to advantage when they agree to divorce. Scenes from a Marriage was apparently blamed for the rise in divorce rates in Europe, although it was most likely coincidence. The film/series is highly regarded, and it does seem in places like the epitome of Bergman, but I can’t really say I liked it. It looked bland – perhaps deliberately so – but neither of the main characters were pleasant, or sympathetic, enough to hang a 281-minute TV miniseries on. There were some good bits, true, and it times the marriage did actually feel genuine. But it was a bit like a gory autopsy, and unpleasant to watch more than it was intertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 890


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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