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Moving pictures 2017, #30

Six films, four countries… and they’re all countries from which I’ve seen many films before. Some favourite directors – including one who’s becoming more of a favourite, and one whose works I don’t like as much as I used to…

Diving into the Unknown, Juan Reina (2016, Finland). I stumbled across this true story last year on the BBC website, but had forgotten a film was being made of it. So I was chuffed when I came across Diving into the Unknown, and immediately added it to my rental list. It’s intended to be a fly-on-the-wall film of a difficult cave dive. But the dive turned into tragedy, and the documentary crew continued to film those involved as they tried to come to terms with the tragedy, and what it meant to them in their pursuit of their sport. A team of Finnish technical cave divers planned to swim through a cave system in Plurdalen, Norway, which stretched some two to three kilometres but reached a depth of 130 metres, with many tight and narrow passages. At the deepest part of the dive, two of the team drowned – despite being experienced divers, and as a consequence of events not entirely explained in the film. An attempt by the authorities – aided by a team of British divers – to retrieve the bodies failed, and further entry to the caves was prohibited. So the Finns decided to illegally re-enter the caves and fetch their colleagues’ bodies. Which they did. With the original documentary crew following their every move. Their “rescue” mission was successful, and the Norwegian authorities chose not to prosecute them. The film is a combination of talking heads – the divers discussing their sport, the dive, and the tragedy – and footage from both the tragic dive and the rescue dive, with some fly-on-the-wall footage of the group preparing for each of the dives. The divers are completely normal people – mostly men, but there are some women – and not the sort of egotistical assholes you usually find in extreme sports (although, on reflection, all the documentaries I’ve seen about divers has shown them to be disconcertingly ordinary). Diving into the Unknown is the sort of story Hollywood would have a field day with (who know, there may be a fictionalisation in the works already), but the matter-of-fact presentation of the documentary I find much more effective. Definitely worth watching.

Finally, Sunday, François Truffaut (1983, France). The more Truffaut I watch, the more I like Truffaut. I’d seen Jules et Jim and Les Quatre Cent Coups many years ago, and not been all that taken with them, although I did, and still do, love Fahrenheit 451. But the Truffaut films I’ve watched since, I’ve liked a great deal, including Tirez dur le pianiste, which may actually be one of my favourite New Wave films.  Finally, Sunday, or Vivement dimanche!, was Truffaut’s last film and, as I tweeted while watching it, probably “the Truffautest film Truffaut ever Truffauted”. For a start, it’s shot in black and white, which immediately suggests Truffaut’s New Wave movies, and it is, in fact, very New Wave, in look and tone and construction. A rich man is shot while hunting, and a business associate, an estate agent, is the prime suspect. The estate agent’s secretary, played by Fanny Ardant, sets out to prove her boss’s innocence. So you have that noir link, a New Wave favourite, right there in the plot. It’s also very Hitchcockian, of course, as Truffaut was an expert on Hitch, and was instrumental in rehabilitating the director and his oeuvre. I too am a big fan of Hitchcock and own pretty much all of his movies on either DVD or Blu-ray (and I’ve also seen Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, although I’ve not read the book). In places, it’s hard to tell what in Finally, Sunday is homage and what is pastiche, but then the lines between those two are often blurred in the New Wave (although perhaps more so in Godard’s films). I am becoming a bit of a fan of Truffaut, despite being initially cool to his films. I think Truffaut is the better director, but Godard is the better film-maker, if that makes sense. Happily, most of Truffaut’s oeuvre is available in the UK – including a pair of reasonably-priced Blu-ray collections – which is not the case for Godard.

Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino (2008, Italy). The first Sorrentino film I saw was The Consequences of Love and I thought it great – the aesthetics of a European car commercial married to a, somewhat langorous, thriller plot. And so beautifully shot. And I liked The Great Beauty too, even if it felt like Fellini on prozac – because the cinematography was once again exquisite – although to be fair, the languid pace did suit the story (or rather, it suited the character of the film’s protagonist). But Youth was a disappointment, a trite story of the over-privileged at a Swiss sanatorium, albeit still with lovely photography. But my appreciation of Sorrentino’s work was definitely on the wane. And so, Il Divo… This is an earlier work than those mentioned previously, and is a lightly fictionalised account of the career, and fall from grace, of the Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, prime minster from 1972 to 1973, 1976 to 1979 and 1989 to 1992. He was accused of corruption and ties to the Mafia, but was aquitted in court due to a lack of evidence. The film is as stylish, and as stylised, as Sorrentino’s later works, with beautifully-lit and -shot interiors, but Toni Servillo, who also played the lead in The Great Beauty, plays Andreotti with a weird lack of affect that seemed to make the man more of a caricature than a character. It was a bit like watching a political cartoon wandering through Rome’s many historical buildings. It all felt like it wasn’t taking Andreotti’s transgression expecially seriously – not an attempt to rehabilitate, but more of a trivialisation of his crimes. An odd film.

Gone to Earth, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1950, UK). The Archers must surely be in the top ten of British directors, if not the top five, although many of their films these days are so much of their time the sheer technical brilliance involved in their making is often overlooked. My favourite of their movies remains Black Narcissus, which is such a beautifully-made piece of cinema it’s mind-blowing it was done entirely in a studio. But the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are best known for three other films – The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – all of which are excellent… but it does mean the rest of their oeuvre tends to get overlooked. Including this mid-career piece set in Cornwall. Although, to be fair, Gone to Earth is a bit hokey, and while there’s lots of good Archer-ish things about it, the story is somewhat over-melodramatic and perhaps even a bit bodice-ripper-ish. Jennifer Jones plays the flighty nature-loving and nubile daughter of a coffin-maker and harpist in 1890s Shropshire. She also has a pet fox. But then the local squire takes a shine to her… but she marries the new vicar instead. And then runs away to be with the squire. But the vicar wins her back, although by this point her name is mud in the community. It all comes to a head with a tragedy that was carefully telegraphed in the first act. This is not a great Archers film, although the fact it was made by them means it’s better-made than most of its contemporaries. It seems a bit chrulish to complain about the story, since most of the Archers’ films are overloaded melodramas, and part of their formula was making such melodramas play like plain dramas. Gone to Earth doesn’t manage the charisma of the aforementioned films, perhaps because it feels like a cut-price Austen story, or because the characters are just a tad too archetypal… A film worth seeing, but not a great film.

The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland (2014, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and a quick google persuaded me it might be worth watching. Which it was. It’s very slow, which I like; but I’m not sure on it being inspired by the films of Jess Franco. But then, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any films by Franco (isn’t he a bit like Tinto Brass? Deeply sexist exploitation films from the 1970s?). A young woman turns up at the house of a slightly older woman – I’m not sure where this was filmed, the cast speak English but it doesn’t look like the UK (and the two leads are Italian and Swedish, anyway) – where she is apparently taken on as a maid/housekeeper… although the mistress of the house appears very demanding, if not over-demanding. It transpires the maid is a student of the older woman, who is a lepidoptery expert. And the two are lovers. The film charts their exploration of a BDSM relationship, in which it is soon revealed that the submissive is actually controlling the mistress. It’s all filmed totally like an art film, and not at all like the soft porn its story suggests. In fact, in places it closer resembles video art than it does narrative cinema. Clearly, Strickland is a man with a singular vision, and the wherewithal to get projects with such, on the surface, salacious plots green-lit. The film certainly makes the viewer feel like they’re peeping on a private affair, which is clearly the effect Strickland was striving for (there are shots taken through keyholes, for example). It makes for an uncomfortable experience, that razor-edge between titillation and invasion of privacy the film manages to straddle quite successfully. Not everything in it works, but enough does to make it an interesting movie.

La Commune (Paris, 1871), Peter Watkins (2000, France). This, to be honest, was a bit of a slog. I’m fully in tune with Watkins’s objectives and sensibilities, but 345 minutes (5¾ hours!) is a lot of time to spend watching a pretty obvious story unfold. There’s a lot of good things in this – it’s a Watkins, so that’s a given – such as the insistence on historical verisimilitude but the presence of modern media. But it’s also a blow-by-blow account of the founding of the titular government, which ruled Paris for just over a month in 1871. The film is presented as re-enactments of events, using a very large and mostly non-professional cast, some documentary footage about the making of the film, fake news broadcasts by a contemporary (ie, 1871) television station (yes, really), and a series of historical notes given as lengthy intertitles. It comes across as a comprehensive documentary, or Open University film, about its subject, but with added commentary and, on top of that, meta-commentary about the media and the role of media in the sort of events which both created and led to the destruction of the Paris Commune. The film makes a large number of interesting, and important, points, but watching all 345 minutes of it is a real test of endurance. It’s going to take me several goes to digest it all, so I’m glad I have my own copy (albeit from a France-released box set – why is there no UK box set of Watkins’s films?).

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 869


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Moving pictures, #54

Another varied batch of films. I think I might well end up having watched more movies this year than last year… and I watched 544 in 2015. Oh well.

stagecoachStagecoach*, John Ford (1939, USA). Do westerns belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? If they do something unexpected and original with the form, or if they’re seminal, then yes, I suppose they do. But I can’t see that Stagecoach does any of those. It’s best-known as John Wayne’s breakthrough movie. He’d made lots of Poverty Row westerns, and his one previous appearance in a big-budget western was a box office flop. But Ford, who had not made a talky western before, wanted Wayne and fought the studio to get him. The film was a hit. But why does that make it one of the 1001 best movies ever made? The story is pretty stereotypical: a handful of people with back-stories leave town on the stagecoach, they pick up Wayne en route, who has just broken out of prison, and then chase the US Cavalry across the state, pursued by Apache. According to Wikipedia, Stagecoach “has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made”. But given that Wayne had been in about eighty Poverty Row Westerns during the 1930s, I find it hard to believe everything in Stagecoach was seminal – some western at some point must have introduced whatever tropes exist in Stagecoach. Of course, a Poverty Row film might not have had the release of a major studio movie… Perhaps it’s just that Stagecoach has been overtaken by westerns that came after it. I mean, some of the westerns from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve seen have been pretty damn good, albeit for a variety of reasons. But I can’t say Stagecoach was one of them.

fantasia_2kFantasia 2000, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas & Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (1999, USA). I watched a much earlier Disney anthology film a few weeks ago, one that was put together to keep the studio in work during World War II. Fantasia 2000 has no such excuse. It claims to be a celebration of the original Fantasia, but comes across more like an excuse for its animators to show off – and, to be fair, some of the animation is very impressive. Unfortunately, each of the film’s eight segments is introduced by Hollywood stars at their most smirkingly oleaginous. Instead of a celebration of the original Fantasia, it gives the whole project the feel of a self-congratulatory Hollywood/Disney celebration. Of the segments, the abstract shapes of the opener were cleverly done, the space whales in the second were also good, the Al Hirschfeld-style animation in the third segment was clever but soon wore thin… and then it all started to go downhill, with one of the remaining segments a repeat from Fantasia. One for Disney fans, I suspect.

sacrificeThe Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). I’ve now replaced all my Tarkovsky DVDs with the new Blu-ray releases – well, all except The Tarkovsky Companion, which I don’t think is getting a Blu-ray release – and since I now own shiny new copies in a much better format, I’ve been rewatching them… And it’s been sort of weird sitting through these films, given the high opinion of them I held. Take The Sacrifice. I would have counted it among my favourite of his films, perhaps second to Mirror… And yet, having now rewatched it, it sort of feels like a Bergman film played at slow speed. Of course, this is chiefly because the dialogue is in Swedish (with some English), the star is Erland Josephson, and it was filmed on Gotland. But even then, the concerns of the film feel quite Bergman-esque…. up to the point where the nuclear holocaust takes place. That isn’t Bergman at all. And the wife’s subsequent breakdown, which is harrowing to watch, is not something you’d expect to see in a Bergman film. But would you expect to see it in a Tarkovsky film? And yet… I still think The Sacrifice is one of Tarkovsky’s best films, not because it least resembles the others but because so much of its emotion is there on the screen to see. Kelvin in Solaris was a bit of an enigma, Mirror was too patchy to have a real emotional payload… but The Sacrifice is all about emotion – not just Adelaide’s hysterics, but Alexander’s response to the holocaust. It’s a film that, like a densely-written literary story, rewards attention and rewatching, and even when you’ve given it neither, it still tells you that you should have done. And certainly more so than Solaris or Mirror. It’s as if the cinematic tricks used to tell the non-linear story of Mirror were used in service to a superficially uncomplicated linear narrative. There are films you rewatch because you enjoyed them; but there are films where every time you rewatch it you feel like you’re digging a little deeper into its meaning. Tarkovsky’s films definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m particularly glad buying the Blu-rays has prompted me into rewatching them. Which I will be doing a few more times before the year is out, I think.

ray_1Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray (1963, India). Ray is considerably better-known outside India than Ritwik Ghatak, but he also has a considerably larger body of work. And most of it seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (I wonder if it’s because Ray was championed by Merchant & Ivory…). Like Ghatak, Ray was Bengali, and Mahanagar is set in his native Kolkata. A young couple in Kolkata are having trouble meeting their bills, so the wife takes a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. She proves to be good at it. But when her husband realises this means he’s not being looked after to the degree to which he is customed, he asks her to quit. But then he loses his job, and she becomes the only breadwinner in the family. And the whole experience has given her the confidence and independence to carry the family over her husband’s objections. So much so, in fact, that when a colleague of hers, an Anglo-Indian, is fired because the manager believed she had thrown a sickie, she confronts the manager but ends up resigning in protest. A comparison with Ghatak’s films is, for me, inevitable. And while I’ve seen only a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I have seen more films by him than by Ghatak… I do like the urban character of Mahanagar – it doesn’t have those great shots of the river and countryside you see in Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, and its narrative is much more traditional in structure; but it’s an engaging drama and it’s played completely straight, with no frills. The end result is a movie which doesn’t have the scope of  A River Called Titas but handles its constrained domestic drama, and the social changes it documents, in a nicely low-key way. Recommended. And yes, once I’ve watched the three films in this box set, I’ll be buying volume 2 and then volume 3, and then the Apu trilogy if I can find a copy (as it’s been deleted already, I think).

youthYouth, Paolo Sorrentino (2015, Italy). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since I’d seen and been impressed by Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty in previous years, it was an easy decision to watch it. Unlike those other two films, however, Youth is English-language – in fact, it stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in the two main roles, supported by, among others, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda and Paloma Faith. Caine and Keitel are old friends, currently staying at a Swiss health resort. Caine is a famous composer, Keitel a famous director. A “queen’s emissary” (wouldn’t that be an equerry?) visits Caine and asks him to conduct one of his pieces at a special concert for Queen Elizabeth II. He refuses. Keitel, meanwhile, is trying to write the screenplay – with the help of half a dozen screenwriters – for his last movie, his “testament”. As you’d expect from Sorrentino, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are extended moments when the story is put to one side and the viewer is allowed to just revel in the atmosphere while suitable music plays (it’s part of the narrative, not something imposed by the medium). But the rest of the story… there are a couple of good cinematic tricks, and the dialogue is never actively bad, but it all feels a bit banal and perhaps even a bit stereotyped in places (especially Jane Fonda’s part).  I don’t know; Sorrentino is a master director, but I’ve seen three of his films now and each has left me slightly dissatisfied in some way – and the nearest I can come to articulating why, is that the way he structures his stories seems to flatten their dramatic beats and makes them feel a bit, well, hollow. But his films do look beautiful. So I’ll continue to watch them.

herzogThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974, Germany). I picked up a copy of this Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection a few weeks ago, and have been working my way through it. I already had many of the films on DVD – in a pair of box sets I bought years ago – but Herzog is definitely worth upgrading. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is not as bonkers as Herzog gets, but it is pretty bonkers. It’s also based on a “true” story. In 1828, a young man was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg. He claimed to have been kept imprisoned in a cellar for his entire life up until that point. It was rumoured he might be related to a royal house, although he denied it. It is now considered more likely he was a con artist, and made it all up in order to blag his way to notoriety and riches. Herzog goes with the mystery – but casts Bruno S, a completely bonkers Berlin musician, in the title role, despite Bruno S being in his forties and the historical Hauser being in his late teens. But it works because Bruno S is such a mad actor. Imagine someone had sucked Brad Dourif’s brains out of his ears, and the memory having had brains still remained, and you might get some idea of what Bruno S’s acting is like. And if that wasn’t enough, Herzog has Hauser bark his new-found learning throughout the film in a series of pedagogical conversations and interviews. It is completely unconvincing, and yet totally believable – a quality a lot of Herzog’s films possess. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is by no means Herzog’s best film, although it remains one of his more interesting ones – but this collection is definitely worth getting, and not just for the feature films but also for the special features, such as How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, a 1976 German TV documentary on the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in the US.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 809


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Moving pictures, #31

More movies! Some good, some bad – well, some good, some meh. But mostly good, I think. Perhaps a few too many from the US, but that seems to be how it worked out. I did actually put together my own list of 101 must-see films (rather than 1001) on listchallenges.com – 101 Films for a Cineaste. Of course, I now realise there are films I’ve missed, so I’ll probably have to do a second list… And, no doubt, when I’ve seen yet more films, I’ll want to put together a third list…

paths_of_gloryPaths Of Glory*, Stanley Kubrick (1957, USA). I think I might have seen this before, on television or something back in the 1980s (I spent most of the 1990s in the Middle East, so it was unlikely to be there – UAE television was shit). Certainly, bits of it felt familiar, although it’s a story that, in general form, has been told a number of times in film, book and even bande dessinée. During World War I, a general orders a division to attack a German redoubt, even though the attack will certainly fail and result in high casualties. As indeed it does. The general is so enraged, he orders three men, chosen at random from the survivors, be tried for cowardice, pour encourager les autres. Cowardice was a capital crime. It’s worth bearing in mind that in the British Army less than thirty percent of battlefield executions were upheld once the war was over. That’s seven out of ten men shot by courts martial should not have been executed. In a civilised world, that would qualify as a war crime. And the same is true of General Mireau’s actions in Paths Of Glory. But, of course, the wealthy and influential can do wrong. As Kirk Douglas, playing the colonel who defends the three men, discovers. The film is actually based on a novel, which was loosely based on real events – apparently, the invented bit is the random picking of three men; the French Army shot lots of men for cowardice, but its victims were not randomly chosen. A pity they didn’t shoot the generals*.

californiaEl Valley Centro, Los and Sogobi, James Benning (1999/2001/2002, USA). After three films in which Benning imposes narrative on his trademark series of static shots through either voice-over or scrolling text, these three films are nothing but pure imagery. Which, unsurprisingly, renders them more like art installations than actual cinema – although I can’t really see someone standing in front of a screen in a gallery for 87 minutes (the length of each film). Each film comprises 35 shots of precisely 2.5 minutes’ duration each. The first is about LA’s Central Valley, with shots of farms, oil fields, even fighter jets taking off from a USAF air base. Los is the urban part of the trilogy, with street scenes from greater LA. And Sogobi (the Shoshone word for “earth”) is the California wilderness, consisting of shots of mountains, rivers, deserts and chaparral. In all three films, the shots are carefully composed – in the first, the screen is split horizontally, usually by the horizon, across which objects move; in the second, it is the vertical lines of the city, and the spaces that creates; and the third’s nature shots are increasingly encroached upon by humanity’s presence. The final credits also give the names of the corporate owners of all the locations shown in the films, pointing out just how “free” the Land of the Free really is. Unlike the other Benning films I’ve watched, these require a great deal of work on the viewer’s part – though they’re also completely mesmerising to watch – in working out the narrative. They tell a story, but they make no concessions – there are no clues, no handy voiceover, no scrolling text. I am enormously glad the Österreichisches Filmmuseum is releasing Benning’s work on DVD, or I might never have come across it.

boogie-nights-mysBoogie Nights*, Paul Thomas Anderson (1997, USA). I’m aware of Anderson’s standing as a director, and I’ve seen several of his films… but I’ve never really understand why he’s so lauded. Is it simply that he’s a bit of a maverick? Certainly I can understand the topic of Boogie Nights not being a, well, mainstream movie topic, given it’s about the porn industry in LA. Mark Wahlberg plays a young man with an impressively large todger, which is, of course, never actually seen on screen (this being neither a DH Lawrence adaptation nor a comic book movie). He comes to the attention of Burt Reynolds, a porn director, who then casts him in some of his films. As Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg becomes rich and famous, and lives the rock star lifestyle to excess. Which is pretty much what this film is, a typical rags-to-riches-to-drug-addled-decline story, the only difference is it’s porn rather than music. I’m not entirely sure why Boogie Nights is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (a sadly frequent complaint of these Moving pictures posts).

chappieChappie, Neil Blomkamp (2015, USA). I hadn’t really liked Blomkamp’s two earlier films, District 9 and Elysium, even though they were hugely popular. So I wasn’t expecting much of this one, especially since it hadn’t been all that well-received. So, of course, totally perversely, I actually enjoyed it and thought it rather good. The title refers to a police robot operated by the Johannesburg police force. After being damaged in a firefight with gangsters – its batteries have fused to its chassis, and so cannot be removed; in other words, it has five days of power left and then it’s irretrievably dead – the robot is pulled from the scrapheap by the inventor of the robots, Deon, for him to use on his home project: an AI. But on his way home with the dead robot, he’s hijacked by a trio of inept gangsters, who want him to reprogram a police robot to obey them. So he gives them his AI instead. But on booting up it has the mentality of a child, and though Deon tries to tech it morality, the gangsters trick it into committing crimes by the gangsters… It’s not the most original story on the planet. But Sharlto Copley gives Chappie real character, and the CGI robot itself is well done. It’s more of a comedy than a sf action/adventure film, but that I think is one of its strengths. The villains of the piece are a bit one-note; and the rival robot is plainly based on RoboCop‘s ED-209, and as far as homage it’s not exactly subtle. But I liked this one, it’s much better than Blomkamp’s earlier two films.

great_beautyThe Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013, Italy). I loved Sorrentino’s The Consequences Of Love when I saw it back in 2013, I even picked it as one of my five best of the year films. So I’m a little surprised it’s taken me so long to watch The Great Beauty. Having said that, there’s now a Five Films by Sorrentino DVD box set available, so I might well get it… Anyway, The Great Beauty. I was not initially taken with this film as it took a while to settle into its story. The main character is a cultural commentator, skating by on the fame of a  highly-respected novel he wrote decades before, but now content to write newspaper columns and magazine articles. He wanders the streets of Rome at night, meets people and talks to them; he throws parties in his apartment – at one of which, he delivers a devastating takedown of a female friend who had called his bluff on “honesty” – and he has relationships with various women. The story seems to grow out of the film, rather than provide a structure for its narrative. Which means it does take you somewhat by surprise, as it pulls you in and then wins you over. I didn’t like it as much as The Consequences Of Love, but in channelling “faded glory” rather than “stylish” it makes for an interesting, if overly Fellini-esque, film (and there are several nods to Fellini throughout the film). On reflection, it might be worth waiting for that box set to appear on Blu-ray…

fassbinder1The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1972, Germany). The title character is a fashion designer and the entire film is restricted to her small apartment. It also has an all-female cast. The movies open with von Kant being awoken by her assistant, Marlene. Several visitors appear throughout the course of the film, one of whom, Karin, von Kant takes a shine too. They enter into a relationship. Six months pass. Nowe the relationship is not so loving. Karin admits to have slept with a man, and it then turns out she has been seeing her ex-husband and they plan to get back together. Von Kant feels betrayed. And, er, that’s about it. Fassbinder made a remarkable number of films during his relatively short career, and he had the artistic courage to experiment with cinematic formats and narratives (much as von Trier does). The result are not always successful. Admittedly, The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I think some of his other films are actually more interesting. But there’s certainly plenty ot chose from, and I’ve not watched all of his oeuvre. Yet.

my_man_godfreyMy Man Godfrey*, Gregory La Cava (1936, USA). A bunch of nincompoop socialites play a game, the prize going to whoever can find most unwanted thing. One woman tries to persuade a homeless man (Powell) to be her item, but he refuses. Her sister (Lombard), however, is sympathetic to his plight, so he decides to help her show up her sister and so volunteers to be her unwanted thing. They win. Lombard is so grateful and so full of philanthropic goodwill, she offers Powell a job as her family’s butler. This has in the past proven a hard position to fill, as the family are demanding, scatter-brained, and often partying a bit too hard. Powell is the perfect butler and a boon to the family. Lombard falls in love with him – but this film isn’t that transgressive, as it turns out Powell is a runaway son from a rich patrician Boston family. Having said that, he does use his money to develop the city dump where he had been living into a nightclub, with homes and jobs for the people who had been living there. But philanthopy is no alternative to social welfare, and any society that relies on it has no business calling itself civilised. Still, to be fair, My Man Godfrey does run a good line in witty banter, and for a 1930s screwball romance it’s a reasonably good example. That the happy ending encompasses more than just the lovebirds is commendable, as is the somewhat feeble attempt to show that poor people are really people too; but the classism is bad, and so too is the easy acceptance that the largesse of the rich is a viable way to run a society.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 654

* to wit:

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
‘I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.’

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.


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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.