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Moving pictures, #65

In this post, a new nation joins the roster of countries from which I’ve now seen films: Burkina Faso. I really need to get more of those Great African Films DVDs, as I do like films from African countries – as much for the variety as for what they reveal of life in the various nations on the continent. Other than the Burkina Faso movie, only the two US directors were unknown to me (and one of them turned out to be a Brit, anyway).

preciousPrecious, Lee Daniels (2009, USA). This is on another list, rather than the one I’ve been using for the past two years. And it wouldn’t otherwise be the sort of film that would interest me. The title refers to the central character, an overweight black teenage girl with learning difficulties, a physically abusive mother, and a child with Down Syndrome (who actually lives with the girl’s grandmother) fathered by her own father. The film is adaptation of a novel, Push, by Sapphire, and it’s pretty grim stuff. The mother is especially horrible, subjecting Precious to a litany of verbal and mental abuse, and the occasional moment of violence, throughout the film. Precious herself is an innocent, completely unable to see a way out of her circumstances. But then she’s given a place at an alternative school, and she begins to open up… in the process revealing her mother’s behaviour toward her and that her child is the product of incest (oh, and she’s pregnant once again, also incestuous, when the movie opens). The book’s prose apparently reflects Precious’s improved command of language as she attends the alternative school, but the voiceover narrative doesn’t make this especially clear. The film has been accused of throwing a bit too much at the protagonist, and although there’s a clear arc toward some sort of happy ending, it is pretty heavy-handed. Still, that’s what drama does…

american_history_xAmerican History X, Tony Kaye (2009, USA). Another film that’s on another list, but this one was also free to watch on Amazon Prime so… To be honest, the story of the making of the film is more interesting than the story of the film. In American History X, Edward Norton plays a neo-Nazi who goes to prison after viciously murdering two black guys, sees the errors of his ways after being sexually assaulted by another neo-Nazi in the showers and spending time working alongside a black guy who was imprisoned for six years for stealing a TV. On his release, Norton tries to prevent his younger brother, who has fallen under the spell of the same neo-Nazi guru Norton had, from following in his footsteps. These days, neo-Nazis get upset when they’re called neo-Nazis, or even just straight Nazis, but fuck ’em. They’re neo-Nazis. “Alt-right” is just as much a bullshit right-wing propaganda term as “political correctness”. Ignore anyone who uses either. But, American History X… Apparently, the studio were unhappy with Kaye’s first cut. And his second cut.’Then Norton hired an editor to cut the film to his taste. So Kaye played the prima donna, famously hiring a rabbi, a RC priest and a Buddhist monk to sit in on a meeting with studio bosses. Um, yes. The film has its moments, but Norton is too weedy to convince in his role (just compare him to the meatheads Nazis he meets in prison), and the whole thing over-inflates the success of neo-Nazism so much it dangerously normalises it. I’m all for rehabilitation narratives, but they need to be stronger than this to justify their existence. It doesn’t help that every black character in American History X is a gang banger, except for Avery Brooks’s mentor, which only just feeds into the whole neo-Nazi white supremacy thing. Seriously, films about Nazism and neo-Nazism should make the politics so unpalatable – as they are in real life – that no one would want to have anything to do with them; they should not leave enough wiggle room for an intellectually-challenged viewer to start giving brainspace to the toxic shit they peddle. We all know the dangers of “post-truth”, which is another word for “lie” or “fiction”. After all, 52% of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote even though the actual facts show Clinton won it by nearly three million votes. And don’t get me started on the lies put out by the Leave campaign…

sons_roomThe Son’s Room, Nanni Moretti (2001, Italy). And from the “look at my award-winning turn playing a toxic character in a toxic film” American History X to a drama that has a cast of human beings and deals with a very real situation. Moretti himself plays the father in a middle-class Italian family. Teenage boy and teenage girl cause the usual familial disruptions. Moretti’s job as a practicing psychiatrist means he has his patients’ problems as well as his family’s to deal with. Nonetheless, the family are generally easy-going, centred, good-natured, although attractive in a sort of lifestyle magazine advert way. And then the son dies in a diving accident, and the surviving three members of the family have trouble dealing with their grief. Moretti’s character replays over and over his last day with his son, when he cried off from the promised jog together because a patient had called him and asked for his help (the patient had just been diagnosed with cancer, it transpired). My only previous experience to Moretti’s films was his Caro diario, which I thought pretty good. That was a more personal film, although The Son’s Room covers such an emotive topic it feels a much more personal movie. I should probably watch more Moretti – he’s very good. Recommended.

great_african_1Haramuya, Drissa Toure (1995, Burkina Faso). As mentioned earlier, and evident from the DVD cover art, this is the second film in the Great African Films Volume 1 DVD I bought on eBay. This is pretty much a slice-of-life drama set in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. A teenager gets a job in a shop, but worried that his parents cannot affort to eat, he steals some flip-flops to sell, but is caught and fired. There’s a long-running plot-thread about stolen mopeds. And also a police investigation into drug dealing – which one dealer manages to evade by feeding his marijuana to an uncle’s goats… who promptly start butting each other and everything in sight. Haramuya is light on plot, but it’s also an excellent window onto a world I would not otherwise be likely to see. Toure’s direction is effective, but workmanlike more than anything else. The film comes across as a social drama, but structured as a series of interlinked narratives. The cast are natural, with only one or two moments where it feels a little amateur. Of the two films in Great African Films Volume 1, Faraw! is clearly the better, but Haramuya is still worth seeing. There are, to date, a further three volumes – 2 Tasuma and Sia, The Dream of the Python (both Burkina Faso), 3 Daratt and Desert Ark (Chad and Algeria), and 4 The Pirogue, Colobane Express and The Silent Monologue (all three Senegal). I plan to buy them (although I’ve already seen Daratt).

sonatineSonatine, Kitano Takeshi (1993, Japan). I stumbled across this in a local charity shop, and since I know Takeshi’s name, it was an obvious decision to buy it. Only later did I discover it’s the film which brought him international attention. And having now seen it, I can understand why. A Yakuza enforcer and his team are sent to Okinawa to sort out a dispute between two gangster plans but the enforcer realises it is all a plot to remove him. So he hides out with his team at a beach house, where they play games and tricks on each other… before it all comes to a violent end when the Yakuza boss turns up looking to resolve the situation. And, er, that’s sort of it. When the enforcers are hiding out at the beach, they act like kids. Takeshi, who plays the lead role, plays it totally deadpan, so the humnour is even funnier because it bounces off him completely. Of course, being a Takeshi, it’s also pretty violent, with lots of gun battles and violent murders. But there’s also a strong thread of black humour running throughout the film. For example, when the enforcers first arrive in Okinawa, they’re taken to an office building used by the clan. They’ve not been there five minutes when someone shoots at a window. What’s that? asks one of the Okinawa team. That’s just the other clan, they’re always shooting at us… This DVD only cost me a quid, and I fully expected to drop it off in a random charity shop after I’d watched it… But I think I’ll be keeping it. Worth seeing.

gabbehGabbeh*, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). Iran, despite its theocratic regime, perhaps even in spite of it, has a strong presence internationally in the cinema world, and has produced a number of excellent directors and films. Some have worked within the system, some have worked around it. I’m not sure which group Makhmalbaf belongs to, although the fact his name is important to the plot of Kiarostami’s Close-up suggests he has the approval of the authorities. And, to be fair, there’s nothing in Gabbeh that might offend them. It’s an Iranian fairy-tale, based around the style of rug from which the film takes its name. An old couple make their way to a stream to wash their gabbeh, and a young woman, who answers to the name of Gabbeh, magically appears out of the picture wiven into the rug. Gabbeh’s story is also depicted in the rug, which changes as the film progresses. She is betrothed to a young man, but each time they try to set a wedding date something happens to put it off. She tells this story to the old couple. As should be evident from the DVD cover, this is a gorgeous-looking movie. Recommended. And no, I didn’t pay the price show on Amazon, I bought my copy on eBay for considerably less.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 834

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2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13’s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.