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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Movie roundup 2020, #3

In the past week or so, I’ve seen lots of people and companies offering their products – books, comics, films, songs – free of charge to people who are self-isolating. While the sentiment is certainly welcome, I already have more than enough books to last me a couple of months, and I can always download more ebooks without venturing into a shop. I also have access to a couple of streaming services, not to mention a backlog of about fifty Blu-rays to watch. During the day, of course, I’m working – it’s been common practice at my employer for people to work from home quite often, and now the offices are closed and everyone is doing it…

So, I have to wonder: all this free time we supposedly now have, where is it? Mine was already filled with reading books and watching movies. Was everybody else out every evening, every weekend? (Of course, I recognise that some people are actually out of work because of the pandemic, and they have my sympathy.)

Anyway, speaking of films, here’s another roundup of the last few weeks’ viewing. I’ve now finished all ten seasons of Stargate SG-1, and I’m two-thirds of the way through Twin Peaks season 3 (and enjoying it very much). I should also note I don’t mention every movie I’ve seen, since some are just not worth mentioning and others I might have written about previously.

Room at the Top, Jack Clayton (1959, UK). This is generally reckoned to be the first kitchen sink drama, and also holds the record for the shortest on-screen time by an actor to be nominated for an Oscar – Hermione Baddeley, Best Supporting Actress, who appeared on the screen for 2 minutes and 19 seconds. Laurence Harvey plays a clerk who moves from one West Yorkshire mill town to another and a slightly better position. He sets about social climbing – and this is actual class warfare, not whatever Americans think it is, with Harvey’s working-class origins set against upper middle class arrogance (financed by the riches of a working-class man made good). The ex-RAF boyfriend is an especially horrible piece of work. Very good film.

Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan (2020, USA). I’m not a big fan of superhero films. Actually, I’m not a fan of them at all. There are perhaps two or three that are any good, and perhaps a couple more that were genuinely ground-breaking when they were released but have not stood the test of time especially well. These days it’s getting hard to tell the difference between a superhero movie and a Lego movie. Margot Robbie was good as Harley Quinn, in as much as she committed totally to it. But this sort of stuff goes stale really quickly.

My Favorite Brunette, Elliott Nugent (1947, USA). It’s good to know that pastiches of noir are pretty much as old as noir itself, although My Favorite Brunette, a Bob Hope vehicle, sends up far more than just the tropes its Chandleresque plot depends upon. There are several digs at other Hollywood properties, and even at other roles played by some of the cast. Dorothy Lamour is the femme fatale who shows up in a private detective’s office looking for help. Unfortunately, it’s not the PI behind the desk but the baby photographer, and wannabe gumshoe, from across the hall, and he’s completely useless. As he subsequently proves. The story is told in flashback by Hope as he waits for his execution in prison for murder. Better than expected.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, Ruggero Deodato (1976, Italy). Every time I look on Amazon Prime, yet more gialli seems to have been added. Technically, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is a poliziottesco movie – the title, which is the best thing about it, is a bit of a clue. Tarantino has apparently praised this film, but there’s very little that’s impressive about it. The movie opens with a group of black marketeers being machine-gunned to death by a gang who control smuggling. A cop who had turned a blind eye to smuggling and the like finds his scruples being abused when it comes to murder and drugs. But he’s in too deep to get out. Unfortunately, his father is an old school police sergeant with a much more fixed view of right and wrong. So the detective ends up killing his father. Meh.

Satte Pe Satta, Raj N Sippy (1982, India). There’s these seven brothers, and they live on a remote farm, there’s lots of singing and dancing, and stop me if you’ve heard this before… The oldest brother controls the other six, who behave like animals, but then he gets married – although his bride has no idea what she’s let herself in for – and her influence gradually humanises them… And then film takes a complete left turn, when the six brothers meet a wealthy paraplegic heiress and her five friends, and it turns out the heiress’s guardian is trying to murder her. And he hires a killer who is the spitting image of the oldest brother (the same actor, obvs). This can only be Bollywood. An attempt on the heiress shocks her into walking again, the killer mends his ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the evil guardian.  Has to be seen to be believed.

Rulers of the City (AKA Mister Scarface), Fernando Di Leo (1976, Italy). Another poliziottesco movie. There are these two rival gangs in an Italian city, one of which is run by Jack Palance. A low-level runner in the other organisation comes up with a plan to defraud Palance out of a substantial sum, but it backfires and the two gangs go to war. Surprisingly dull, and the chirpy narrator/lead annoys more than anything else. Avoidable.

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Freddie Francis (1965, UK). Five men occupy a compartment in a British train, when they are joined by Peter Cushing. Who then pulls out a pack of Tarot cards, and uses it as a prop in order to trigger flashforward stories detailing the horrible deaths of each of the five men. It’s all resolutely 1960s British horror, with its usual mix of familiar faces (to Brits, anyway), bad special effects, slightly off-centre takes on horror tropes, and a sort of theatrical seriousness that only UK films of the period achieved. One for fans of the genre and period – or rather, the genre during that period – which I am sort of finding myself becoming. (Oh, and this is not Hammer, but Amicus.)

Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK). I remember my excitement when this film was announced – Ridley Scott returning to the Alien franchise! Wow. Alien is one of the best science fiction films ever made, and even though each sequel was worse than the film preceding it, surely Scott could, after 33 years and a highly successful career, make something really good? But oh dear. What a load of fucking tosh. Prometheus looks great, but makes zero sense – from the incompetent sociopathic “experts” hired for the mission, to the risible scene where Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron run away from the rolling boomerang spaceship along the same line it is rolling. The universe of the Alien franchise was, much like that of Star Trek, one that sort of developed as the franchise progressed, but Prometheus, through some bad story choices, ended up not only retconning it but rendering much of it nonsensical. As a standalone film, it looks great but suffers from idiot-plotting and idiot characters; but it did far more damage to the franchise than it did to Scott’s reputation.

Stolen Kisses, François Truffaut (1968, France). It’s nine years since The 400 Blows, and lead Jean-Pierre Léaud is now a young man, fresh from a dishonourable discharge from the army – the general who gives him his papers rightly asks why he bothered to enlist in the first place – and hooking back up again with family and friends. And, er, that’s it. He ends up in a job working for a detective agency, while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend. But he goes undercover in a shoe shop, falls for the owner’s wife, and jeopardises both his job and his relationship with his girlfriend. I like a lot of Truffaut’s films, and there’s no denying his knowledge of technique and cinematic history, but I suspect there’s something about these Antoine Doinel movies that does not translate. Still, two more to go, perhaps they will be better.

Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco). This film is on one of those 1001 movies you must see lists, although not the one I’ve been trying to complete, and I can’t remember exactly which one. However, it certainly belongs on as many as possible. It’s not an especially well-made film – the cast are mostly not professional and it shows, and the story feels like it should be guerrilla film-making but the actual production clearly is not. The story is set among the homeless boys of Casablanca. One breaks away from a gang with three impressionable friends. He plans to be a cabin boy on a dhow, and has even secured the friendship of a captain. But he’s killed in an encounter with the rest of the gang. So the three remaining boys decide to have him buried properly, as a “prince of the streets”, and as they attempt this they learn more about his life and dreams and the captain who befriended him. Good stuff.

Return to Oz, Walter Murch (1985, USA). Not being American, I have no particular attachment to Oz. There’s the film with Judy Garland and… well, that’s it. Baum apparently wrote fourteen Oz books, and the first one was adapted numerous times. I’ve not read any of them. Return to Oz, however, is a sequel to the 1939 film and unconnected to the books. It is also a completely bizarre take on the source material. The Wheelers are very 1980s – leg-warmers and roller skates! But Tik-Tok is almost prescient, and his explanation of how his brain works could have come from any twenty-first century sf novel. The use of animation for the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodsman and Jack Pumpkinhead works much better than expected. There’s a sort of off-kilter approach to the property that actually turns the movie into something much more interesting than the various remakes of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, no matter what gimmick they threw at the camera, like disco or roller-skates. I have a weird liking for this film.

The Tenant, Roman Polanski (1976, France). I know, we shouldn’t be watching Polanski films, the man is still wanted for raping a thirteen year old girl in the US – despite Tarantino’s back-handed attempt to partly rehabilitate him – and The Tenant was the last film he made before that incident. There’s no denying he was a talented filmmaker, although his good films are a great deal better than the rest of his oeuvre. Sadly, The Tenant falls into the latter category. Polanski himself plays the title role and, for whatever reason, he decided to turn his story set in Paris and based on a French novel into some weird US parody of France by casting US actors and giving them dialogue consistent with that nationality. No wonder it was panned when it was released. Avoid.