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Moving pictures, #39

Well, slightly less than half of this post are US films, although I’d prefer it to be no more than one or two per post. But we’re getting there, as our national railway famously once said only to be privatised and then completely fail to get anywhere…

only_live_onceYou Only Live Once, Fritz Lang (1937, USA). This was a cheerful movie. Henry Fonda plays a habitual criminal who decides to go straight – mostly thanks to the love of a good woman, in this case Sylvia Sidney, the secretary of the local public defender. But not everyone is so forgiving. Although the public defender (who is secretly in love with his secretary) gets Fonda a job at a delivery company, he’s fired when he takes time out to look over a new house with his new wife. And no one else will employ him because he’s an ex-con. Absolutely no one. And then someone robs an armoured car, and a hat is left at the scene which points to Fonda as the culprit. He’s found guilty (the trial is off-screen, probably because it sounds so much a travesty of justice Lang was too embarrassed to show it), and Fonda ends up on Death Row. But an opportunity for escape presents itself, he takes it, but accidentally kills the prison priest… seconds after the warden has received news that Fonda is innocent and has been pardoned. Too late! Fonda collects his wife, and the two go on the lam. To be honest, I’d expected more from Lang. I’ve seen a fair number of his noir movies, and I expected this to be as good as they were. And certainly the scene where Fonda escapes from prison is very atmospherically staged and shot. But everyone is so horrible to Fonda, and the odds are stacked against him so strongly, the set-up to justify Fonda’s abrupt shift from optimism to desperation feels forced and completely implausible. So, not one of Lang’s better films.

zabriskieZabriskie Point*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1970, USA). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films, and his Red Desert is one of my all-time favourite movies; but I also like late 1960s/early 1970s hippy films – or, at least, ones that comment on the hippy condition. It’s not just the direct rebellion, nor the questioning of society, but also that so many of these types of films throw in an additional dimension – which might well be typical hippy occult bullshit, but at least adds something a little more interesting to the story. And so to Zabriskie Point, which opens with semi-documentary footage of a protest at a California university. But when the police turn up, the protest takes a violent approach and several people are killed. Including a policeman. The film then abruptly switches to two characters: a young woman who is looking for a man in the Mojave Desert who works with emotionally disturbed children. Meanwhile, a young male student from the university protest, and a prime suspect in the death of the cop, steals a plane and flies off to Arizona… where he meets the young woman. And they go to Zabriskie Point, a real place just east of Death Valley, Nevada, where they have sex – well, actually, a full-blown orgy kicks off… and this isn’t really a film where you can describe the plot, or where such a précis would do the film any favours. But it is by Antonioni so it looks absolute fantastic and, to be fair, he makes just as good a fist of depicting the culture he’s filming as Demy does in Model Shop – they’re neither part of the culture, but their outsider status allows them see more than might be visible from inside. Antonioni made several excellent movies – I’d put Zabriskie Point in the top five of those; in fact I think I’d call it my third favourite after Red Desert and Blow-Up.

hired_handThe Hired Hand*, Peter Fonda (1971, USA). Sigh. Another 1970s Western on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But… well, this is a surprise. I’m not a fan of the Western, and have only three in my DVD collection – and I’ve probably seen more than I ever really wanted to because they’re on the 1001 Movies list… Certainly I’d never have considered watching this one: an early seventies Western, directed by Peter Fonda… (Even though I liked Easy Rider a lot.) But in fact it turned out to be pretty damn good. For exactly the same reasons why it flopped on release back in 1970. It’s slow, its cinematography is poetic, and it has a great soundtrack. Its story, to be fair, is not very interesting, and its characters are not very strong… but the whole works because the pictures and story go together exceedingly well. Fonda plays a drifter who decides to return to the wife who kicked him out years before, and asks only that he be taken on as a “hired hand” in order to prove he has changed. But a stop-off en route had made enemies of some nasty sorts and they track him down, and your typical Wild West showdown ensues. Where The Hired Hand really scores, however, is in its opening third: the cinematograhpy goes mad for dissolves and montages, and it works wonderfully well. The bluegrass score by Bruce Langhorne is also really well done – and I’m not a person who really notices incidental music (I have, like, three original soundtracks in my music collection… er, except for all those ones by Andrzej Korzyñski). Altogether, this is good stuff, and I’m tempted to pick up a copy for myself.

24_city24 City, Jia Zhangke (2008, China). I had been seriously impressed by Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, so of course I added the rest of Zhangke’s oeuvre to my rental list… and this was the first sent to me. And, I’m happy to report, I did not choose wrong. Zhangke is a name to watch and a new director to join my favourites. The title refers to a new suburb built on the site of an aircraft factory. The film covers several decades in a semi-documentary style, first interviewing workers in the aircraft factory (whose location and purpose is a state secret because the aircraft are military). The film is divided into three sections: one during the days of the plant’s operations, another after it has closed and the plant has been mothballed, and one after the site has been redeveloped and a dormitory suburb now occupies the location. The mix of staged interviews, informal interviews (one scene consists entirely of a man at a bar reminiscing about his career at the factory), and small family dramas which illustrate the personal histories affected by the history of the factory and the town which springs up in its place, is extremely effective; and I especially like the factualness of it. 24 City is, apparently, a real place, and the story of the film is no doubt based upon, or inspired by, real events; but the mix of fact and fiction I find quite compelling – much as I did in A Touch of Sin. Excellent stuff.

mournfulMournful Unconcern, Aleksandr Sokurov (1983, Russia). This was another work by Sokurov that remained underground for many years – it was banned by the Soviet authorities – before finally being publicly screened after glasnost… and was promptly nominated for a Golden Bear. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, but is intercut with documentary footage. The cinematography is, surprisingly, straightforward, but the whole thing feels ike an unholy mix of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, albeit put together in an entirely Sokurovian way. That documentary footage, for example – it’s contemporary with the setting, the 1920s, and features Shaw himself, a zeppelin, World War I, an Antarctic expedition, the River Ganges, and various places in Africa. The choices of incidental music is also typically Sokurovian, and often anachronistic. Heartbreak House, subtitled “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, which is apparently a reference to Chekhov, whose plays inspired Shaw’s, is set in the home of Captain Shotover – played by Ramaz Chkhikvadze as half Falstaff and half Lear – and is partly a drawing-room farce and partly an Edwardian sex comedy. Gunfire and explosions can be heard on the soundtrack throughout the entire film, which ends with a zeppelin dropping a bomb and blowing up the house. It’s… an odd beast. The story seems well-suited to Sokurov’s feelings about the Soviet Union. The use of documentary stock footage is perhaps more intrusive than in the other films in which Sokurov uses it, but it works really well (some of the inserts provide clever and amusing commentary on the main story). I’m not so sure about the story itself, however – I don’t know what changes Sokurov made to Shaw’s play, though the setting seems to be as described. Still, like all of Sokurov’s films, it’s one that will require repeated viewings.

brooklynBrooklyn, John Crowley (2015, Ireland). This was one of those films of the last year or so which received lots of positive buzz and reviews, and didn’t involve superheroes, so I thought might be worth watching. It’s also an adaptation of a novel (winner of the Costa Novel Award, but only longlisted for the Man Booker) by Colm Tóibin, who, I admit, I’ve never read. The story is relatively simple – a fact stressed by several of the reviews: young Irish woman in the 1950s travels to New York in order to build a new life. She lives in a boarding-house and works in a department store, but she is shy and unassuming and very homesick. Then she meets a young man, of American-Italian extraction, and the two enter into a relationship. She is is now much happier and more settled. But then her sister in Ireland dies unexpectedly, so she returns to succour her mother. And now life back in Ireland seems much more attractive than it did when she left for New York. That is until the town gossip reveals something the young woman had been sort of trying to forget… and so she returns to New York. It’s a very pretty film, the cinematography is quite lovely, and the cast are uniformly good. Julie Walters as the landlady of the Brooklyn boarding-house, however, is a scream. But the story all feels a bit drab and low-key and devoid of any real insight, which makes the movie feel more like well-shot wallpaper than actual drama. I enjoyed it, but I think it was over-praised.

land_freedomLand and Freedom, Ken Loach (1995, UK). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not apparently the edition of it I’m using. Still it’s by Ken Loach and the subject matter – the Spanish Civil War – made it seem worth renting. And so it proved. An old working-class man in Liverpool collapses in his council flat, the ambulance comes, but he dies en route. Later, going through his things, his granddaughter discovers he had sailed to Spain in the 1930s to fight for the Republicans against the fascists. She reads his letters… and these are dramatised, with Ian Hart playing the young Scouser. On arrival on Spain, it all seems a bit haphazard, but Hart joins POUM’s milita and is soon out fighting (which basically seems to involve taking potshots from the POUM trenches at fascist soldiers in their trenches). At one point, the militia oust a troop of fascist troops from a village, and the villagers then conduct a fierce discussion on private ownership and collectivisation. After Hart is injured training new recruits – a rifle explodes when he fires it – things take a turn for the worse as the various left factions begin fighting amongst themselves, and even start killing those whose idealogies are not approved. It hardly comes as a surprise the fascists win (even for those who don’t know their history). The right always will… because the left seems happier fighting among itself than showing a united front to the enemy – just look what’s happing in the UK now. You look at Trump, and it’s 1930s Germany all over again; you look at the UK, and it’s 1930s Spain. Neither, of course, bode well… I’ve watched the occasional Ken Loach film over the years and enjoyed them, but have never really made an effort to seek them out. However, I find myself appreciating social realism in movies much more these days than I used to (and consequently despising fascistic sfx-heavy tentpole movies). I see there are three box sets of Loach’s films available – Volume 1, Volume 2 and At the BBC. I might well avail myself of them…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 792

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Moving pictures, #35

One of these days, I’ll put up one of these posts and it will not contain a single English-language film. But this time, I’m batting two from six for foreign-language films, which is an improvement on one from seven like my last Moving pictures post…

romaRoma, Federico Fellini (1972, Italy). When I picked up copies of Casanova and Satyricon, I decided to throw in Roma as well, even though I’d not seen it. I had thought, from the title and cover art (though, to be fair, I’d not looked especially closely at the latter), that Roma was set during, well, Roman times. Like Fellini Satyricon. I was, in fact, expecting something similar to that film, which is why I’d bought it – Fellini in all his 1970s indulgent colour. But it turns out Roma is about a young Fellini, who was actually from Rimini, arriving in Rome, and falling in love with the city. The end result is something which has the freedom and plotlessness of a New Wave film, but is in glorious colour and contains a strong thread of Fellini’s somewhat earthy humour. I had expected to like the film for the same reasons I’d like Fellini Satyricon – ie, because it was, basically, bonkers – but actually found myself liking it because it felt like a string of vaguely-related Nouvelle Vague scenarios shot with the sureness and control of a master director and in which the process of filming itself became one of the story’s narratives. One particular scene springs to mind: Fellini is filming something on Rome’s ringroad, and it begins to rain… Apparently, it was shot entirely on a soundstage, although it doesn’t look like it is. A featurette on the Blu-ray points out that a lot of the Roman locations were actually shot on soundstages – and that the same was true of many of the street scenes in Fellini’s . So there you go. I’d sort of added Roma to an order on a whim, but I liked it a lot and I’m glad I bought it.

futureworldFutureworld, Richard T Heffron (1976, USA). I found this in a charity shop, and while I can remember seeing Westworld, I wasn’t so sure if I’d ever seen this sequel. And having now watched it, I’m still not sure. Some bits seemed familiar, other bits didn’t. I suspect I probably did see it – the scenes with “Clark”, the robot rebuilt by the janitor, seemed familiar, and they’re not scenes that would normally be excerpted or trailed where I might have otherwise seen them. Anyway… after the oops-we-appear-to-have-killed-a-lot-of-our-paying-guests of Westworld, Delos is determined to push ahead with its robot-serviced fantasylands, and so has another go with a big promotional splash. Included in said splash are old-school newspaper reporter Peter Fonda and up-and-coming TV reporter Blythe Danner. Of course, there’s more going on than Delos’s PR department want people to know… Well, no, not really: the robots are perfectly safe, and are unlikely to run amuck and slaughter guests. Instead, Delos is planning to replace state and industry world leaders with robot replicas, although how people would tell the difference is never explained. Or indeed why they should be any different. Robot replicas reporting to a corporate overlord versus our current generation of politicians… Nope. Same thing. Aside from a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Blythe Danner has sex with rogue robot gunfighter Yul Brynner, Futureworld is a bog-standard 1970s sf film in which frankly rubbish sfx are married to a hackneyed plot that some sf author probably covered two decades before. It’s not like the production design is anything special either – and I really like 1970s production design. Meh.

endearmentTerms of Endearment*, James L Brooks (1983, USA). Jack Nicholson is an ex-astronaut and a sad ageing womaniser. Shirley Maclaine, after being introduced via an entirely pointless prologue featuring her and her daughter, Debra Winger, and their relationship, is Nicholson’s neighbour. For reasons he does not appear to understand, he invites her out for a drink. The two are initially repelled by each other, for, it must be said, fairly good reasons. But they too fall in love, and Maclaine somehow succeeds in rehabilitating Nicholson, although her own snobbery survives more or less intact. As for Winger, who swoops into the story at various points, as if her life and relationships are germane to the central plot and not episodes that interfere in the central relationship between Maclaine and Nicholson. Terms of Endearment apparently won five Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay – which no doubt explains its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See  Before You Die list, but it is a pretty boring film. Maclaine is reasonably good, Nicholson does his usual gurning, Winger is good but her presence feels like an attempt to shoehorn a second plot in (perhaps it had more space in the original novel), and I totally forget who else was in the movie. I can at least now cross it off the list… but without any real sense of accomplishment.

red_desertRed Desert*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy). This was a rewatch, and I normally don’t bother mentioning them – especially when I’ve written about the film before on this blog, as I did here… But Red Desert is so good, it’s one of my top ten films, and I rewatched it because I finally got around to upgrading my DVD copy to the Blu-ray edition and… It’s a beautiful film, it’s a painterly film. And it shines on Blu-ray. The film is all about industrial landscapes and their effect on the environment – as translated through Monica Vitti’s damaged character – and never has pollution looked so pretty. The scene where the group of friends gather in a hut on the jetty, and a ship draws up alongside… The ship seems even more over-powering, so close and so huge… It completely overshadows the sexual games the couples had playing in the hut earlier. The white fog which covers everything when they leave seems like a fitting commentary. Red Desert is a favourite film – hence the purchase of it on Blu-ray and this additional review of it – and it not only survived a rewatch, but the rewatch only increased my admiration for the film. A genuine piece of cinematic genius.

horizonswest11Horizons West, Budd Boetticher (1952, USA). When this dropped through the letter-box, I assumed I’d stuck it on my rental list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But it’s not. And it’s not a Howard Hawks western. So it must have been because it stars Rock Hudson. Except he’s not actually the star. Robert Ryan is the star. He and Hudson are brothers. After returning from the civil war (they were on the losinig side, you know, the side that thought it was okay to own slaves), they settle down to farm the family homestead. But Ryan has ambition. So he enlists the help of some local disaffected veterans, begins rustling cattle and selling them to the Mexicans, and so builds up a fortune. Raymond Burr plays the local grandee, who is a nasty piece of work, and provides additional motive to Ryan to earn his fortune – other, that is, than Burr’s wife, whom Ryan falls for, and who later proves the driver of his worse actions. Hudson meanwhile takes over as marshal and ends up attempting to bring his brother to justice. It’s an interesting situation, but it’s given the usual shallow Hollywood treatment. And there’s nothing else to recommend it. Missable.

shineShine*, Scott Hicks (1996, Australia). A biopic, and you know how much I love them… The subject in this case is David Helfgott, an Australian concert pianist. The film opens with Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush in fine form) demanding entrance to a closed restaurant during a storm… and over the course of the film he gets to know its staff, one in particular, and becomes a regular there playing the piano. He is a psychiatric patient, and it is a friend of one of the waitresses – Lynn Redgarve – who eventually marries him and so rehabilitates him. Before that, we have his history: his teen years as a gifted pianist, driven by his tyrannical father, arguments over competitions, over whether he can study in the US, his move to London to study at the Royal College of Music, his eventual breakdown and admission to a psychiatric hospital… This is a polished piece of biopic-ery, but I can’t honestly see anything in it that lifts it above others of its ilk. How it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a mystery. Which is hardly something I’ve no said before… I watched it, that’s enough. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 786

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Moving pictures, #21

Another diary entry from my road trip along the celluloid highway. Which is a particularly crap image, but never mind. Yet more movies, anyway. A few from the 1001 Movies list, a few from favourite directors, and a crap anime from Amazon Prime. I also joined a new rental DVD service recently, Cinema Paradiso. Impending changes to Amazon’s services don’t look too good, so I may have to look for an alternative. Cinema Paradiso boasts a library of 80,000 DVDs, which is impressive. I’ve also found several films on their site I want to see that Amazon don’t have. We’ll see how it goes for a couple of months.

madeleineMadeleine, David Lean (1950, UK). This was apparently based on a real story, about the murder of a French emigré draper’s assistant by his lover, Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy Glasgow businessman, in 1857. Lean apparently made the film as a “wedding present” to his wife, Ann Todd, who had played the title role on stage. I’ve never really been convinced Lean was a great director – he made a couple of great films, however – and Madeleine is usually considered his slightest work. And so it is. The cinematography makes effective use of angles and shadows to give the film a sinister aspect, but Todd doesn’t really come across as flighty enough, or calculating enough, as Madeleine. And the final part of the film, covering her trial, is mostly dull. The film may be notable because Madeleine was found “not proven”, a verdict unique to the Scottish justice system, but any Brit with two brain cells to rub together knows of “not proven” anyway. A mildly entertaining but mostly forgettable Sunday afternoon film.

carmen_jonesCarmen Jones*, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). The title is adapted from the work on which the film is based, Bizet’s opera Carmen, although this is no opera but a 1950s musical. With an all-POC cast. I am not, it must be said, a huge fan of musicals, and there’s only a handful I’ll actually watch and enjoy. Carmen Jones was, I admit, better than many I’ve seen, but I didn’t think keeping Bizet’s original score but using contemporary lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein, and vocals worked all that well. The story takes place during WWII and opens at a parachute factory in North Carolina where the title character works. She is arrested for fighting and sent to a nearby town to be jailed, escorted by a young soldier. It all goes downhill from there – she absconds, he is sent to the stockade. Later he’s released and tracks her down, but gets into fight with his sergeant and ends up fleeing with her to Chicago where he hides out while Carmen is seen out and about with a champion boxer. It all ends badly. None of the musical numbers really stood out, and the story was certainly grim enough to qualify as a tragedy; and I can sort of see why it might have made the 1001 Movies list.

ladies_manThe Ladies Man*, Jerry Lewis (1961, USA). I’d a feeling I’d seen this before, and as soon as the camera pulled back and revealed the house interior was one giant set like a doll’s house, I knew I had. But I’m not surprised I’d forgotten pretty much everything else about the film: Jerry Lewis is so annoying throughout, his antics simply don’t stick in memory. In The Ladies Man, he plays the houseboy in a huge house filled with young women boarders. And, er, that’s about it. There are one two slapstick routines that are mildly funny. A running joke about Baby, the owner’s pet, which terrorises everyone with its loud lion-like roar, but proves to be a small basset, is feeble at best. A reality TV show then asks to shoot an episode from inside the house, and Lewis of course manages to ruin everything. The doll house thing is clever and done well, but that’s not enough reason for this film to appear on the 1001 Movies list.

targetsTargets*, Peter Bogdanovich (1968, USA). I know Bogdanovich chiefly for the two films he made for Roger Corman using bits of Soviet sf film Планета бурь, Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet and Voyage To The Planet of Prehistoric Women. Oh, and I’ve heard of The Last Picture Show, of course. But Targets was completely new to me… and having now seen it, I can’t say I really understand why it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was Boris Karloff’s last film, and he’s reasonably good in it – but he was pretty much playing himself, an actor near retirement chiefly known for horror movies who has been asked to make one last film. Bogdanovich plays the director who has persuaded Karloff to work for him. And then there’s a sniper who goes on a killing spree. It’s all a bit B-movie, even without the presence of Karloff, or the final showdown in, of course, a drive-in movie theatre.

rainbowThe Rainbow, Ken Russell (1989, UK). Russell did quite a few Lawrence adaptations during his career, but this one is generally overlooked. Probably because it’s not very good. It’s only the final third of the novel for a start, which follows the Brangwen family through three generations. Russell focuses only on the last, in the person of Ursula Brangwen, who, in the early 1900s, has an affair with a teacher at her school, meets a young man but turns out his offer of marriage, goes off to the city to teach at a school, and then turns her back on everything to go her own way. The film hits the highpoints, but glosses over much of the novel’s internalising, which flattens Ursula as a character and makes her considerably less interesting. The Rainbow was also shot in Cumbria, which is not Derbyshire – and it showed. I liked the book a great deal, I can’t say the same of the film.

kingdomThe Kingdom*, Lars von Trier (1994, Denmark). I’v been steadily working my way through von Trier’s oeuvre, in no particular order, and while some of his films I really don’t like at all – such as Dogville – he’s never less than interesting. The Kingdom, a supernatural television mini-series set at Rigshospitalet, one of the largest hospitals in Denmark. Shot entirely on grainy video using handicams, it initially has the feel of a cinema verité documentary, but the cast are clearly acting, which sort of undoes that. And then the plot gets stranger and stranger… leading to a brilliantly weird sequence in which the hotel director and health minister visit the neurology department, where much of the story takes place, and witness first a patient, a porter and the senior registrar bricking up a hole in a wall in a basement corridor, a surgical team implanting a tumourous liver into one of the hospital’s pathologists, and a woman giving birth in a neurology consulting room. And, of course, there’s the visiting Swedish consultant, played by Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who ends each episode on the building’s roof, bellowing “Danskjävlar!” (an insult) into the night sky. There’s a special edition box set containing both the first and second series of The Kingdom. I think I’ll get myself a copy.

sky_blueSky Blue, Moon-saeng Kim (2003, South Korea). I found this on Amazon Prime and it looked like it might be worth watching. It wasn’t. Set next century, after the Earth has been turned into a toxic wasteland, there’s a high-tech city in which everything is wonderful, and all the workers live out in the wasteland, mining “carbonite” [sic] to power the city’s systems. And then there’s a romantic triangle between nasty city guy, enigmatic wasteland guy (who fled the city years before), and good city woman. During its 86 minutes, Sky Blue manages to hit every cliché going, which is quite an achievement. Bits of it, however, looked very pretty – the backgrounds are all CGI but the characters are cel animation. Nonetheless, best avoided.

founding_of_a_repblicThe Founding of a Republic, Sanping Han & Jianxin Huang (2009, China). Found this in a charity shop and it looked interesting. The DVD cover art is also deeply misleading – I spotted Jet Li, and I think I saw Donnie Yen, but I don’t recall seeing Jackie Chan. And I find it very annoying they have Li’s name above Yen’s face, and vice versa. As the title suggests, the film tells of the founding of the modern Chinese state, opening with the Double Tenth Agreement in 1945 between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. But the agreement doesn’t hold for long, war kicks off once more, and eventually the Communists triumph. The films jumps from historical character to historical character, returning only to Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek at intervals. I suspect the characterisation of Mao Zedong is not entirely accurate, he seems altogether too jolly. Still, despite feeling like a flick through a history book at a speed a little too quick to really understand what’s going on, this wasn’t too bad. Some impressive set-pieces, anyway.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 615


Moving pictures, #5

I hate f**tball, so I’ve watched a whole bunch of films recently – because there’s bugger-all but f**tball on telly. Some of you might have spotted this. I can’t complain too much, however, because it has led to me making a substantial dent in my To Be Watched pile. Yes, I have a TBW pile as well… although it is orders of magnitude smaller than the TBR pile. Having said that, an additional three DVDs join it each week from Lovefilm. Anyway, I’ve been watching two films a night since the f**tball began, and some of them have been very good indeed…

blowupDVDBlow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) David Hemmings – a very young David Hemmings – is a hip and trendy fashion photographer in swinging London – one of the models who poses for him is Veruschka, for instance. Hemmings has a pet project, a book of his non-fashion photographs, and while out looking to buy a junk shop he finds a small park whose peacefulness appeals to him. He takes some photos… including of a couple trysting. The woman – a very young Vanessa Redgrave – is upset at being photographed, but Hemmings won’t hand over his film. Later, he learns why. The man was about to be murdered. Beautifully-shot, tense, and yet typically Antonionian. There’s a good reason why it’s a classic film.

cracksCracks, Jordan Scott (2009, UK) You know Dead Poets Society? And Mona Lisa Smile? This is more of the same, the only difference being Eva Green plays the inspirational teacher, it’s set in the 1930s, at a girls’ boarding-school, the special snowflakes are members of a diving team, and it’s about the daughter of Spanish royalty who joins the school and the team… and upsets its delicate balance. Green, as usual, seems a little unhinged, the direction and photography are polished (Jordan Scott is Ridley Scott’s daughter), and it all hangs together… but it feels a bit like a Sebastian Faulks novel: well-crafted, nice sense of time and place, but all a bit bland and unmemorable.

PartyGirlPosterBajaParty Girl, Nicholas Ray (1958, USA) The title refers to Cyd Charisse, who plays a chorus girl at a nightclub in 1930s Chicago, but the film is really about Robert Taylor, who plays an accomplished lawyer all the gangsters use when they get into scrapes. He’s still married, but she agrees to be his mistress – but later, when he decides he’s had enough of representing scumbag gangsters, Capone-like Lee J Cobb threatens Charisse in order to make Taylor play ball. There’s little that’s original in the film, though it’s well-shot – as you’d expect from Ray – and Charisse puts on a couple of entertaining routines (though she never seems to quite light up the screen). Cobb just munches his way through the scenery. Apparently, Party Girl is now a cult film, though I can’t quite see it myself.

starcrash-dvdStarcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978, Italy) This is the film that contains the immortal line, “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” And the rest of it is pretty dumb too. How to describe how bad this film is? Caroline Munro, in what is pretty much a bikini, plays the best pilot in the galaxy; her sidekick is the best navigator in the galaxy; they are smugglers. But they’re caught by the Imperial authorities, who want them to track down the emperor’s son, who has crash-landed on a world controlled by the evil Count Zarth Arn. First they are arrested and then sent to prison, but they escape. Munro is teamed with a crap but chatty police robot, and together they find the emperor’s son – played by David Hasselhof – and… The production design owes more to Barbarella than Star Wars, but with none of the appeal of either. The plot makes no sense. Hasselhof actually out-acts everyone else in the film – and that includes Christopher Plummer, who plays the emperor. This is a film that is so bad, it goes through bad, out the other side into good, and then through that… into cult classic. Watch it at your peril.

mcconnellThe McConnell Story, Gordon Douglas (1955, USA) The biopic of a Korean war ace who became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. It’s not the best example of its type. Alan Ladd in the title role never seems quite driven enough, although the aerial photography is pretty cool. McConnell starts out as an army medic, persuades his superior officers to send him to flight school, but only makes it as a navigator – which is what he does throughout WWII. After the war, he’s invited into the newly-formed USAF to train pilots on jets. He ends up in Korea, and becomes the first US jet air ace. Afterwards, he’s assigned to Edwards AFB, where he flight-tests a new version of the North American F-86 Sabre. Apparently, McConnell was killed in an aeroplane crash before the film premiered, so they had to reshoot the ending. Toward the Unknown and Strategic Air Command are much better films of this type.

waroftheworldsWojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie, Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) Or War of the Worlds – The Next Century. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this film, but it was enough to prompt me to buy a Piotr Szulkin DVD box set… and it’s proven an excellent purchase. I mentioned Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom from the same boxed set in an earlier post (see here), and this film is just as bleak and black as that one – if not more so. Iron Idem is a TV broadcaster, but his boss wants him to discuss only material approved by the conquering Martians. Reluctantly, he agrees. But then the Martians trash his apartment and take away his wife – because, the Martians’ goons tell him, they want him to love the Martians. Eventually, they pile one too many indignities on him and he cracks. At a charity concert, he appears on-stage and rants at the audience, telling them to rise up against the invaders. But his speech is never broadcast – and later, after the Martians have left, without its soundtrack the footage is used as evidence he was a collaborator. It’s not difficult to see who or what Szulkin is targetting, and he gives it the blackest possible spin. There’s a grimy and desolate realness to Szulkin’s films. I’m beginning to think he’s better than Żuławski…

bestyearsThe Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler (1946, USA) Three men return to their home town of Boone City after fighting abroad in WWII. One was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but finished the war a captain is the USAAF. Another was a wealthy banker, but is now an Army sergeant. The third was the boy next-door, who fought at the Battle of Midway aboard a carrier, and lost both his arms below the elbow when his ship was sunk. They do not get the heroes’ welcome they expect. The captain learns the woman he married days before being sent to fight is now a night-club singer and used to a life-style he can’t provide – because the only job he is qualified for is the one he held before joining the Army: soda fountain jerk. The banker returns to his bank, only to learn his bosses put the bank’s earnings above the needs of its customers… which seems to him to be against all he fought for. The sailor meanwhile is afraid his childhood sweetheart will reject him because he is disabled. It all makes for a pretty damning indictment of the US public’s response to the war. Don’t be fooled by the cheery/romantic DVD cover art. Incidentally, Harold Russell, who plays the sailor, is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role – one as Best Supporting Actor and one awarded for being an inspiration to disabled people.

Like_Someone_in_Love_2D_dvdLike Someone in Love, Abbas Kiarostami (2013, France) There’s something about Kiarostami’s elliptical approach to story-telling I find very interesting. It makes him one of the more interesting directors currently making films. It’s almost perversely anti-Hollywood… which is another reason why his films appeal. Like Someone in Love is not dissimilar to Kiarostami’s other films in this regard, even though it’s set in Japan, with a Japanese cast and Japanese dialogue. A young student pays for her tuition by working nights as a call girl. One night, she visits the apartment of an old professor, but he would sooner cook her dinner and she’s so tired she falls asleep. The next day, he drives her to college, where he meets her boyfriend – who mistakes him for her grandfather. The old man then drives the pair of them – the boyfriend to the garage where he works, the young woman to a book shop. Kiarostami has set films chiefly inside moving vehicles before – but the ending to this film feels more Haneke than it does Kiarostami. Speaking of which, I’m waiting for someone to do a boxed set of all Kiarostami’s films, just as they have for Haneke…

mynightsMy Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Andrzej Żuławski (1989, France) Żuławski, unlike Szulkin, is plain bonkers – and this film is a perfect illustration of why. Superficially, it seems like a fairly typical amour fou romance, something the French do well, and often, with Sophie Marceau as the object of Jacques Dutronc’s obsession. (Marceau was in a relationship with Żuławski at the time.) But Dutronc’s character has a brain disease and is losing his memory, so he spends all the time obsessively speaking strings of words in order not to forget them. And Marceau is a clairvoyant in a high-end carnival act, in which she is hypnotised, tells members of the audience things they’d rather not hear, and then does a striptease. The two hook up, spend a lot of time having sex, while the rest of the cast wander in and out of the story, mostly uttering gnomic dialogue but occasionally advancing the plot. I really liked the other films by Żuławski I’ve so far seen, but this one was disappointing – perhaps because despite the characteristic Żuławski bonkerosity (er, no pun intended), it felt too generic…

Our Hospitality posterOur Hospitality, Buster Keaton (1923, USA) There’s a list of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die and while there’s a lot on it that plainly doesn’t belong there – Argo? WTF? – I’ve found it a reasonably good source for titles of older classic movies I’d not seen. I’d have preferred it if the list wasn’t full of spelling mistakes and mangled titles, however – it does suggest not that much thought was put into it. Anyway, I know of Buster Keaton, of course; and I’ve probably seen one or two of his films years and years ago. But this one was new to me and… It was good, it made me laugh. The stunts were clever, the story – a pastiche of the Hatfield-McCoy feud – well-played, and the train ride was near-genius. Worth seeing.

obi oba dvdO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec Cywilizacji, Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland) Another one from the Szulkin box set, and it’s just as grim as the other two. Nuclear war has done for the world, all but one thousand people who managed to reach safety in an underground shelter beneath a protective dome. They were told that an Ark would arrive soon to rescue them, and despite the authorities repeatedly telling them there is no Ark, they still believe it. The film’s protagonist is relatively high up in the power structure – he certainly knows there’s no Ark coming – and he’s looking for a way out with his girlfriend. And sooner rather than later, as he knows the dome is about to fail. He has some silverware stashed away and he trades these for food – the utensils can be stamped into tags, which are used as currency in the shelter. Eventually, he learns of a hangar, and a plane stored in it. But when he tracks it down – and this is one of the best scenes in the film – he discovers that the richest man in the shelter has been cannibalising the aircraft’s aluminium fuselage to make currency. The ending is perhaps not the most original ever, given the set-up, but it’s cleverly framed. Good stuff.


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!

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


Best of the year 2012

It’s that time of year again when I go back through my spreadsheets of books read, films seen and albums bought, and try to decide which are the best five of each. And yes, I do keep spreadsheets of them. I even have one where I record the bands I’ve seen perform live. And no, it’s not weird. It is organised.

Back in June, I did a half-year round-up – see here. Some of the books, films, albums I picked then have made it through to the end of the year, some haven’t. This time, for a change, I’m going to actually order my choices, from best to, er, least-best.

girl_reading1 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011)
This is probably the most impressive debut novel I’ve read for a long time. It could almost have been written to appeal directly to me. I like books that do something interesting with structure; it does something interesting with structure. I like books whose prose is immediate and detailed; its prose is immediate (present tense) and detailed. I like books that are broad in subject; it covers a number of different historical periods. And it all makes sense in the end. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for further books by Ward. I read this book in the second half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year best. I wrote more about Girl Reading here.

23122 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)
This year, I’ve actually read eleven genre novels first published during the twelve months, which I think may be a personal record. Having said that, it’s been a good year for genre fiction for me, as a number of my favourite authors have had books out. Sadly not all of them impressed (The Hydrogen Sonata, I’m looking at you). 2312 was everything I expected it to be and nothing like I’d imagined it would be. The plot is almost incidental, which is just as well as the resolution is feeble at best. But the journey there is definitely worth it. It is a novel, I think, that will linger for many years. Again, I read 2312 during the latter half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I wrote more about it here.

universe-cvr-lr-1003 The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011)
Some collections aim for inclusiveness, some collections try for excellence. I’m not sure why Aqueduct Press chose the stories in this collection – it’s by no means all of Jones’ short fiction – but as a representative selection, The Universe of Things does an excellent job. I reviewed it for Daughters of Prometheus here, and I opened my review with the line: “Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading.” This book did make my half-year list. Now I just have to read PS Publishing’s larger Jones collection, Grazing the Long Acre

intrusion-ken-macleod4 Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012)
The endings of Ken’s last few novels I have not found particularly convincing. It’s that final swerve from near-future high-tech thriller into heartland sf. Though the groundwork is usually carefully done, it too often feels like a leap too far. But not in Intrusion. The world-building here is cleverly done – I love the pastiche of Labour, with its “free and social market” – the thriller plot works like clockwork, and the final step sideways into pure genre slots straight in like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Intrusion is another book I read in the second half of 2012, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I reviewed Intrusion for SFF Chronicles here.

sheltering5 The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
Curiously, I’d always liked the film adaptation by Bernardo Bertolucci, which inspired me to read the novel, but after finishing the book, I tried rewatching the film and found myself hating it. Mostly it was because the Lyalls, who are creepy and villainous in the novel, had been turned into comic caricatures. A lot had also been left out – though that’s not unusual, given the nature of the medium. The Arabic in the novel used French orthography, which meant I had to translate it twice to work out what it meant. And it looks like four out of the five books in this list I read after June, so the Jones collection is the only one from my half-year list that made it through to the end of the year one.

There are, however, a ton of honourable mentions – it’s turned out to be quite a good year, book-wise. They are: The Bender, Paul Scott (1963), which read like a sophisticated 1960s comedy starring Dirk Bogarde; The Door, Magda Szabó (1987), the best of my world fiction reading challenge (which I really must catch up on and finish); Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994), a very clever novel built up from several stories, including a fun spoof of Taggart and a brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer; How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983), which should be required reading for all writers and critics; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961), which introduced me to the genius that is Lowry; Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012), successfully brings to a close the best fantasy of recent years; Omega, Christopher Evans (2008), a long overdue novel from a favourite writer, and a clever and pleasingly rigorous alternate history / dimension slip work; and Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds (2012), the start of a near-future trilogy, which is very good indeed but also stands out because it’s not regressive or dystopian.

red_psalm1 Red Psalm, Miklós Jancsó (1972)
It’s about the Peasant Uprising in nineteenth-century Hungary, and consists of hippy-ish actors wandering around an declaiming to the camera. Occasionally, they sing folk songs. Then some soldiers arrive and some of the peasants get shot. But they’re not really dead, or injured. Then the landowners turn up and start espousing the virtues of capitalism. But the peasants shout them down. A priest tries to explain the “natural order of things”, but the peasants aren’t having it. Then more soldiers arrive and round up all the peasants. The ending is very clever indeed. It’s a hard film to really describe well, but it’s fascinating and weird and beautifully shot. I wrote about it here.

red_desert2 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
This was Antonioni’s first film shot in colour and it looks absolutely beautiful. In terms of story, it is much like his earlier masterpieces, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, and, like them, stars Monica Vitti. But also a (weirdly) dubbed Richard Harris. It’s a surprisingly bleak film – although perhaps not “surprisingly”, given that earlier trilogy – but it’s hard not to marvel at the painterly photography and mise-en-scène – who else would have the fruit on a barrow painted in shades of grey in order to fit in with the colouring of the surroundings? I wrote about it here. And I really must write more on my blog about the films I watch.

circle3 The Circle, Jafar Panahi (2000)
This is one of those films where one story hands off to another one and so on, and in which there is no real story arc, just a journey through episodes from the lives of the characters. Each of which is a woman living in Tehran, and all of whom have just recently been released from prison. They were not, however, imprisoned for doing things that would be criminal in other nations. As the title indicates, the stories come full circle, and the film’s message is far from happy or pleasing, but there is still room for hope. This film won several awards, though the Iranian authorities were apparently very unhappy with it.

persiancats4 No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi (2009)
It’s not about cats, it’s about two musicians in Tehran who have been invited to perform at a music festival in London. But first they need to find some more musicians for their band, and they also need the necessary paperwork to leave Iran. But western-style music, which is what they play, is illegal in Iran, and there’s no way they’ll be able to get the visas they need legally. So they visit all the musicians they know, hoping some of them will be willing to go to London with them, and they also pay a well-known underground figure for the papers they require to travel. It’s an affirming film, but also a deeply depressing one.

Dredd5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012)
I was badgered into going to see this at the cinema by Tim Maugham on Twitter. I hadn’t really thought it would appeal to me. Even the fact it was touted as being more faithful to the 2000 AD character didn’t mean I’d like it. Although I grew up reading 2000 AD, Judge Dredd was far from my favourite character, and I’ve not bothered buying any of the omnibus trade paperbacks that are now available. But I went… and was surprised to find it was a bloody good film. It’s sort of like a weird munging together of an art house film and a Dirty Harry film, and strangely the combination works really well. It’s violent and horrible and grim and panders to all the worst qualities in people, but it all makes sense and fits together, and despite its simple plot is cleverly done. I plan to buy the DVD when it is available.

Iranian cinema did well this year for me. Not only did The Circle and No One Knows About Persian Cats make it into my top five, but two more Iranian films get honourable mentions: A Separation, Asghar Fahadi (2011), and The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami (1999). Kiarostami I rate as one of the most interesting directors currently making films. Other honourable mentions go to: John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012), which was undeservedly declared a flop, and is a much cleverer and more sophisticated piece of film-making than its intended audience deserved; Monkey Business, Howard Hawks (1952), is perhaps the screwball comedy par excellence; On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski (1988), is bonkers and unfinished, and yet works really well; there is a type of film I particularly like, but it wasn’t until I saw Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates that I discovered it was called “poetic cinema”, and his Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) is more of the same – weird and beautiful and compelling; and finally, François Ozon’s films are always worth watching and Potiche (2010) is one of his best, a gentle comedy with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in fine form.

mourningweight1 The Weight Of Oceans, In Mourning (2012)
I saw a review of this album somewhere which made it seem as though I might like it. So I ordered a copy from Finland – which is where the band and the label are from. And I’ve been playing it almost constantly since. It’s Finnish death/doom metal mixed with progressive metal, which makes it the best of both worlds – heavy and intricate, with melodic proggy bits. The Finns, of course, know how to do death/doom better than anyone, but it’s been a surprise in recent years to discover they can do really interesting prog metal just as well – not just In Mourning, but also Barren Earth (see my honourable mentions below).

aquilus2 Griseus, Aquilus (2011)
A friend introduced me to this one. It’s an Australian one-man band, and the music is a weirdly compelling mix of black metal and… orchestral symphonic music. It sounds like the worst kind of mash-up, but it works amazing well. In the wrong hands, I suspect it could prove very bad indeed. Happily, Waldorf (AKA Horace Rosenqvist) knows what he’s doing, and the transitions between the two modes are both seamless and completely in keeping with the atmosphere the album generates. The album is available from Aquilus’s page on bandcamp, so you can give it a listen.

dwellings3 Dwellings, Cormorant (2011)
The same friend also introduced me to this band, who self-released Dwellings. It’s extreme metal, but extreme metal that borrows from a variety of sub-genres. I’ve seen one review which describes them as a mix of Ulver, Opeth, Slough Feg and Mithras, which really is an unholy mix (and two of those bands I count among my favourites). Most of the reviews I’ve seen find it difficult to describe the album, but they’re unanimous in their liking for it. And it’s true, it is very hard to describe – there’s plenty of heavy riffing, some folky interludes, some proggy bits, and it all sort of melds together into a complex whole which is much greater than the sum of its parts. This album is also available from the band’s page on bandcamp, and you can listen to it there. (You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m terrible at writing about music. I can’t dance about architecture either.)

25640_woods_of_ypres_woods_iv_the_green_album4 Woods 4: The Green Album, Woods of Ypres (2009)
Woods of Ypres was a band new to me in 2012. I first heard their final album, Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light, but at Bloodstock I picked up a copy of the preceding album and I think, on balance, I like the earlier one better. The music is a bit like Type O Negative meets black metal, with oboes. Sort of. The opening track ‘Shards of Love’ is, unusually for black metal, about a relationship, and it starts off not like metal at all and then abruptly becomes very metal indeed. An excellent album, with some strong riffs and some nicely quiet reflective moments. (It’s pure coincidence that I chose it as No 4 in my list, incidentally.)

obliterate5 Obliterate EP, Siphon the Mammon (2012)
I have no idea how I stumbled across this Swedish progressive death metal band. It was probably the name that caught my attention. And it is a silly name. But never mind. Anyway, I downloaded the EP from their bandcamp page… and discovered it was bloody good. It’s technical and accomplished, with some excellent riffs and song structures. I particularly like ‘The Construct of Plagues’, which features an excellent bass-line, but the final track ‘End of Time’ is also nicely progressive. And… this is the third album in my top five which is available from the band’s bandcamp page, which surely must say something about the music industry and the relevance of labels… or my taste in music…

This year’s honourable mentions go to: (Psychoparalysis), for a trio of EPs I bought direct from the band, and which are good strong Finnish progressive death metal; Anathema’s latest, Weather Systems, which I liked much more than the three or four albums which preceded, and they were bloody good live too; Hypnos 69’s Legacy, which I finally got around to buying and was, pleasingly, more of the same (this is good, of course); Barren Earth’s The Devil’s Resolve, which is definitely heavier than their debut album, but still very proggy and weird; A Forest of Stars, which is steampunk meets black metal, and it works surprisingly well (check out this video here); Nostalgia by Gwynbleidd, who, despite the name, are Poles resident in New York, and sound a little like a cross between Opeth and Northern Oak; Headspace, I Am Anonymous, another Damian Wilson prog rock project, but I think I prefer it on balance to Threshold’s new album; and Alcest, another band new to me in 2012, who play shoegazer black metal, which, unfortunately, works much better on an album than it does live.

And there you have – that was the year that was. On balance, I think it’s been a good year in terms of the literature, cinema and music I have consumed. There’s been some quality stuff, and some very interesting stuff too. Which is not to say there hasn’t been some crap as well, but it seemed less numerous this year. This may be because I chose to ignore what the genre, and popular culture, value and focus more on the sort of stuff that appeals directly to me – I’ve cut down on the number of Hollywood blockbusters I watch, I no longer read as much heartland genre fiction. There’s always a pressure to stay “current”, but the more I watch genre and comment on it, the more I see that it does not value the same things I do. It’s not just “exhaustion”, as identified by Paul Kincaid in his excellent review of two Year’s Best anthologies here, but from my perspective also a parting of the ways in terms of objectives, methods and effects. I want stuff – books, stories, etc – that is fresh and relevant, that does interesting things and says something interesting. I don’t want the usual crap that just blithely and unquestioningly recycles tropes and worldviews, stories about drug dealers on Mars in some USian libertarian near-future, space opera novels in which an analogue of the US gets to replay its military adventures and this time get the result it feels it deserved…

I mentioned in a post last week that I don’t read as much genre short fiction as I feel I should. After all, my views outlined above are taken from the little I’ve read on awards shortlists and in year’s best anthologies. Just because that’s what the genre values doesn’t mean the sort of stuff I value doesn’t exist. I just need to find it. So by including a short fiction best of list in 2013, I’ll be motivated to track down those good stories, to seek out those authors who are writing interesting stories.

All of this, of course, will I hope help with my own writing. I had both a very good year, and a not so good year, in that respect in 2012. Rocket Science, an anthology I edited, and quite obviously the best hard sf anthology of the year, was published in April. As was the first book of my Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. The Guardian described Rocket Science as “superb”, which was very pleasing. And Adrift on the Sea of Rains has had a number of very positive reviews see here. Unfortunately, as a result of those two publications, I haven’t been very productive. I spent most of the year after the Eastercon working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Those few who have read it say it’s as good as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which is a relief. Everyone else will get to find out in January, when it’s published. But I really should have worked on some short fiction as well. I’m not the quickest of writers – I marvel at those people who can bang out a short story in a week – but each story you have published, irrespective of quality, widens your audience a little more, adds a little more weight to your name. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter how good people say Adrift on the Sea of Rains is, I’ve only sold just over 200 copies – add in review copies… and that means perhaps between 250 and 300 people have read it. Some semi-literate self-published fantasy novels available on Kindle sell more copies than that in a week…

But that’s all by the by. This post is about 2012, not 2013. Sadly, I didn’t manage to reread much Durrell to celebrate his centenary. I’ve had The Alexandria Quartet by the side of the bed for about nine months, and I dip into it every now and again, but then I have to put it to one side as I have to read a book for Interzone or SF Mistressworks… Speaking of which, I had to drop to a single review a week on SF Mistressworks, but I still plan to keep it going. During 2012, I read 41 books by women writers, compared to 63 by male writers, which is about 40% of my reading (this doesn’t include graphic novels, non-fiction or anthologies). I also reviewed a handful of books for Daughters of Prometheus, although I haven’t posted one there for several months. (I’ve no plans to drop either responsibility in 2013.) Just over a third of my reading was science fiction, and a quarter was mainstream – so sf is still my genre of choice. Numbers-wise, I’ve not managed as many books as last year – only 146 by the middle of December, whereas last year I’d managed 165 by the end of the year. But I think I’ve read some more substantial books this year, and I did “discover” some excellent writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Katie Ward and Paul Bowles. It’s a shame I never managed to complete my world fiction reading challenge. I still have half of the books on the TBR, so I will work my way through them, though I may not blog about it.

But, for now, it’s Christmas – bah humbug – in a week. And then the start of 2013 follows a week after that. Here’s hoping that next year is better for everyone, that the good outweighs the bad, and that every surprise is a pleasant one.


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…

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.

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.

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…).