It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

Movie roundup 2020, #9

More recent watchings. I’ve been trying to avoid consuming popular US culture for a number of years, but given the current situation in that country, I see even less reason to contribute to the bottom line of some American media conglomerate. Of course, it’s not easy in these days of international financing for movies, and a film made in a European nation, for example, may well have been financed partly by US money. I can’t do much about that. I can certainly avoid Hollywood films, and the only US film among the ones below is Darren Aronofosky’s first, which was financed by donations from family and friends. US films by non-white film-makers, of course, I will happily watch.

And speaking of historical films, I record the country of origin of the films I watch. It is, as mentioned above, not always easy. But I’ve decided to record all Hong Kong-made films as “China”, even if Hong Kong was a British colony at the time the film was made. Likewise USSR movies are documented as “Russia” unless explicitly from a Soviet republic which later gained independence – in which case, I use the republic’s current name.

Disciples of the 36th Chamber, Lau Kar Leung (1985, China). The third of the Shaolin Chamber films, although there were no doubt countless spin-offs, and even now the Chinese film industry is churning out shaolin-related action comedies. But these were the first. Hard to believe one studio, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, pretty much defined an entire film genre. Perhaps even more than one. An over-age schoolboy, who is gifted at kung fu and entirely the opposite at schoolwork, provokes trouble once too often between Han and Manchurians and is sent to a Shaolin temple for his safety. But even there, he causes trouble. I didn’t think the story of this one as coherent as the previous two, and the protagonist’s naivete soon wore thin, especially as he never seemed to suffer its consequences. It’s a fun film – a fun trilogy! – but this is the weakest of the three.

Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, Jonathan Newman (2014, UK). Not sure what possessed me to watch this although it’s pretty obvious what possessed its makers to make it. They were hoping for another lucrative franchise. And this despite the failure of The Golden Compass in 2007, or the slow fizzling out of the Chronicles of Narnia movie adaptations after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010. For twenty years now, Hollywood – and an equally desperate UK film industry – has been mining children’s and teenage genre properties for hit franchises, even though the YA genre has long since lost its box office shine. For this particular film, they chose GP Taylor’s Mariah Mundi series, and while I’ve never read anything by Taylor, nor have I heard anything good about his YA novels. And having now seen Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, I can see they deserve their reputation. Mundi is the teenage son of two important members of the Bureau of Antiquities, a Victorian government department which hunts down and safeguards magical artefacts. One of which is the Midas Box – which allegedly does exactly what it says on the, er, box – but evil grave-robber Otto Luger (named for a Nazi gun, so he must be bad) is hot on the box’s trail. He kidnaps and kills Mundi’s parents, then kidnaps Mundi and his younger brother… Throughout the entire film, Mundi is completely useless. He gets caught by the baddies and has to be rescued half a dozen times. He seems neither clever nor resourceful, and is played with all the expressiveness of a rabbit caught in headlights by Aneurin Barnard. The world-building is quite good, but the story is a derivative mishmash of YA steampunk and fantasy tropes, and the cast almost entirely stereotypes. I can understand why the film flopped.

Dogora, Ishirō Honda (1964, Japan). Honda directed a number of batshit weird sf films during the 1960s. Some of them were actually quite good. Weird. But good. This one, sadly, qualifies only for the first of those two terms. Satellites in orbit disappear after colliding with a weird protoplasmic mass. Meanwhile a diamond robbery in Tokyo goes horribly wrong  and the diamonds vanish. A police inspector, a scientist, the scientist’s nubile assistant and an undercover insurance agent (played by an ex-USMC who was stationed in Japan, decided to stay there, learnt Japanese, and had quite a successful career in Japanese movies). Anyway, like most of Honda’s movies, it’s almost complete nonsense, something to do with a weird space jellyfish which feeds on carbon, in all its forms, and which they eventually manage to kill. This is sf B-movie territory, it just happens to be Japanese rather than American.

Adventures of a Private Eye, Stanley Long (1977, UK). The second in a trilogy of British sex comedies, apparently intended to rival the much more successful novel-based Confessions series, which numbered four films, and the first of which, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, was the highest grossing British film of 1974. I have a vague memory of reading one of these sorts of novels back in the early 1980s while at school, but I seem to remember it involved competitive cycling. I also seem to remember it was terrible. Anyway, the lead is no longer Barry Evans but Christopher Neil, who is left in charge when his boss Jon Pertwee goes off on holiday. Enter the femme fatale. You can probably guess the rest. I’m not sure why I watched this film, and its predecessor, except perhaps to remind me that for all the cool iconography and design that came out of the 1970s, it was still a pretty shit decade to live through – outside toilets and nylon sheets and hotel rooms without en suite bathrooms and racist sitcoms… Thank fuck I spent most of it abroad.

Pi, Darren Aronofsky (1998, USA). I’ve seen this film mentioned numerous times, and I’ve watched most of Aronofsky’s other films, with varying degrees of enjoyment and appreciation. But, despite his reputation, he’s never been a director whose films I rush to see, or whose back-catalogue I hunt down to watch. Pi has lots of fun ideas in it, but is so resolutely experimental it often prevents enjoyment. A paranoid number theorist gets dragged into some weird plot when introduced to the Kabbalah by a Hasidic Jew, and meanwhile has to fight off the attentions of a brokerage house who want to purchase a program he wrote which seems to accurately predict stock prices. And there’s something about a 216-digit number, which is important in several mathematical fields and Judaism. The movie is filmed in stark black and white, although not as starkly as Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir, but certainly with a great deal more contrast than in commercial film-making. This is very much an art house film, with all of an art house film’s look and feel and concerns. It was clear from this movie that Aronofsky was going to have an… interesting career, and that’s certainly been the case. Worth seeing.

The Man from Hong Kong, Brian Trenchard-Smith (1975, Australia). This was apparently the first ever Australia-Hong Kong international co-production, and led to many others. So it’s a bit of a shame it’s so shit. Sammo Hung meets with an Australian contact for a drug deal at Uluru, but there are detectives on the tour bus and Hung is arrested after a bit of a chase up the side of Uluru. He won’t talk, and an inspector is sent from Hong Kong to take him back to face charges there. But the inspector – popular Shaw Brothers lead Jimmy Wang Yu – is determined to take down the Australian end of the drug pipeline, the head of which is George Lazenby. Rumour has it Wang directed part of the film as he was unhappy, and I’m guessing it was the sex scenes. Because there are a lot of them. Wang seems uncommonly successful with the ladies. Unfortunately, the fight scenes are not very good – poorly choreographed and not very inventive. Lazenby, however, gives a good showing in the final, er, showdown, even if he loses. If you like kung fu thrillers, there are plenty of better ones out there. This is, at best, a curiosity.

Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). A twelve-year-old boy is escorted into court and declares to the judge he wants to sue his parents for being born. The film tells his story in flashback. Born in the slums of Beirut to poor parents with too many kids, he doted on his sister, who was sold at the age of eleven to a local shop owner to be his bride. He ran away, and fell in with a Somali illegal immigrant who was trying to hide the fact she had a young baby. But then she’s rounded up by the authorities. He does his best to look after the baby, but is eventually forced to arrange to have himself smuggled to Europe (Sweden). But for that he needs his papers, so he returns home. And discovers his sister died in childbirth, as did the baby. He stabs the “husband” (seriously, you cannot be a husband of an eleven-year-old girl, you’re a paedophile). He is arrested and sentenced to prison. He then learns his mother is pregnant again. This is a heart-breaking film. Everything that happens in it is not only entirely plausible, it is still happening now. Because a handful of Western nations insist on dropping bombs on Arab towns and villages. The so-called Migrant Crisis was created by Western war-mongering. Every nation involved should accept a number of refugees proportional to the number of bombs they dropped. They won’t, of course, because they’re ruled by sociopaths. The US doesn’t have a Middle East foreign policy, only a policy to keep the region so destabilised through war the Russians can’t make any gains. That’s effectively a war crime, and the country’s administration should be held accountable.  As should their lapdogs, the UK. Watch this film. It is excellent.

The Impersonator, Alfred Shaughnessy (1961, UK). I can’t decide if the title to this film is misleading or a spoiler. A USAF base somewhere in England – the cast seem to have generic put-on Northern accents, so it could be anywhere north of Leicester – decides to improve relations with the nearby town. So a sergeant is sent to a local school to offer to take the kids to see a pantomime, Mother Goose. He is attracted to the teacher and they arrange a date. But he misses the bus from the base, and she’s gone home by the time he eventually arrives at the tea-room. He stays for a bit and then, on a whim, invites the tea-room’s owner to be his date at the base dance party. She agrees. On the way home, she is murdered. He is the chief suspect. Because the victim’s young son remembers speaking to an American in the tea-room. This is actually not a bad little murder-mystery. While it’s clear the male lead is innocent, the identity of the murderer is kept cleverly hidden for much of the movie. This may be a British B-movie, but it’s not a bad one.

Prova d’orchestra, Federico Fellini (1978, Italy). Fellini was at his best when he was being indulgent. His earlier films are interesting, but his later ones are pure spectacle and amazing to watch. Prova d’orchestra (AKA Orchestra Rehearsal) is a 70-minute feature film that amply demonstrates Fellini’s humour while reigning back on the cinematic excess. Mostly. As  the title suggests, this is ostensibly a documentary about an orchestra rehearsing for a performance. But as they play so the excesses of the score come to life, and everything descends into anarchy and chaos. It’s about as pure Fellini as you can get. I’d say it was one for fans, but I think everyone should be a fan of Fellini’s films.