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Moving pictures, #19

Odd how these films fall out. Most of the ones I watch are rentals, so it depends on what gets sent to me – and sometimes they just happen to send me US films. Although, to be fair, Fellini’s Casanova was a rental. But Beware of the Holy Whore was from the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I bought last September.

high_plains_drifterHigh Plains Drifter*, Clint Eastwood (1973, USA). As I’ve said before, some films you like the idea of more than you like the actual implementation. But perhaps that’s unfair to High Plains Drifter – I sort of like the central conceit, and how it’s realised – mostly – but it’s a Western, a genre I’m not overly fond of, and it suffers somewhat because it’s a Western. A sheriff is whipped to death by bandits while the people of the town look on and do nothing. Some time later, a stranger arrives in town, violently takes it over, and then promises to defend it against the aforementioned bandits. But he’s really the spirit of the dead sheriff and he’s having his revenge on all parties. So he makes the townsfolk do odd things, like paint all the buildings bloody red, set up a feast in the town’s one street… and then it all turns, well, violent. The film was shot in a purpose-built town on the shores of a lake, which perversely made it seem more like a film set, further adding it to the movie’s general air of strangeness. I can’t decide if its failure to convince works for or against it, but I think on balance I prefer other Westerns directed by Eastwood.

casanovaFellini’s Casanova, Federico Fellini (1976, Italy). After the way Fellini’s Satyricon (an earlier film) had slowly won me over as I watched it, I was sort of hoping Fellini’s Casanova would do the same. And early scenes certainly intrigued… if not so much because of what was going on but because the production design looked like an obvious inspiration for David Lynch’s Dune. It wasn’t just the set or costumes, or the fact Casanova’s forehead was shaved much like those of Lynch’s Bene Gesserit; but even the mechanical owl seemed like a piece of set dressing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paul Atreides’s bedroom. The plot, thankfully, is entirely different… although “plot” might be too strong a word. The film opens in Venice during Carnival. After one of the weirdest PG-rated sex scenes ever filmed, Casanova is arrested and imprisoned. He later escapes, and then travels about Europe having various debauched adventures. The title role is played by Donald Sutherland, who is dubbed into Italian (Fellini did this quite a bit, using Hollywood stars and dubbing them into Italian; seems an odd practice). Fellini’s Satyricon was wildly self-indulgent but, in a very bonkers way, sort of appealed; Fellini’s Casanova may actually be EVEN MOAR self-indulgent, but while I was watching I didn’t find myself taking to it to the extent I had the earlier film… But thinking about it now, as I write about it, I do wonder if another watch is needed in order to fully experience its self-indulgent weirdness.

fassbinder1Beware of a Holy Whore, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971, Germany). That’s the last of the Fassbinders now watched, from both of the commemorative box sets; and with this first set it’s been a more variable experience than the second. But of the films included in volume 1, Beware of a Holy Whore, despite the unwieldy, and I’m-not-entirely-sure-what-it’s-referencing, title, this is one of the better ones. It’s set almost entirely in the foyer and bar of a hotel in Spain, where the cast and crew of a movie are waiting for a production to restart because the financing has run dry. Fassbinder plays the producer, and spends a lot of the film shouting at people. Various members engage in sexual pairings, others wander around pontificating. Then the director arrives in a helicopter, is less than impressed with the hotel as a location, but the shooting goes ahead anyway… And then the same old arguments as before take place. It feels very much like a play, and reminds me a little of Chinese Roulette, in which the guests at a country house party play truth or dare. Apparently, the film is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by Fassbinder’s filming of Whity in Spain earlier that year.

holiday_innHoliday Inn, Mark Sandrich (1942, USA). This is such a famous film – well, it’s the origin of the song ‘White Christmas’ – that I felt sure it must be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. But it isn’t. And I don’t remember why I put it on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Bing Crosby, or Fred Astaire, or Irving Berlin (there are no big star female leads in the film, which is a shame – it probably needed Ginger Rogers, or someone like her; have I said how great Ginger Rogers is?). Anyway, Crosby and Astaire are a singing and dancing act with Virginia Dale, Crosby thinks he’s going to marry her and retire to a farm he’s bought, but Astaire marries her instead. Crosby retires to his farm, it does not go well. He decides to re-invent his farm as a hotel open only on public holidays, with full-on musical entertainment. Marjorie Reynolds gets sort of accidentally hired as a star turn. Astaire turns up, decides Reynolds should be his next partner as she’s a complete star (Dale ran off with someone else), but by this point Crosby has decided he wants to marry her. In most respects, this is a fairly typical 1940s musical with a pair of big-name draws. But… one musical number is done entirely in blackface, and that had never been not offensive. Perhaps that’s why it’s not on the list.

philadelphiaPhiladelphia*, Jonathan Demme (1993, USA). A few days after watching this, I was browsing through my spreadsheet of films watched (yes, I track them on a spreadsheet; stop sniggering at the back) and learnt I’d seen this film back in July 2003. My memory is usually quite good for remembering the plots of stories – either literary or cinematic – but I had zero memory of my previous watch of Philadelphia. It obviously made that much of an impression. And having now rewatched it, I can understand why. Writing this a week or so after watching it, and I’m having trouble recalling much of what happened in the movie. High-flying lawyer Tom Hanks has AIDS but doesn’t tell his employer. One of the partners spots a lesion on his face and correctly guesses Hanks’s condition. So they manufacture an incident and fire him for incompetence. Hanks decides to take them to court, and eventually ends up hiring ambulance-chaser Denzel Washington. Despite most of the cast of Philadelphia being homophobic, the word itself is never mentioned. And it’s a level of overt and constant homophobia that actually works against the point the film is trying to make, as if it’s Hanks’s lifestyle which led to his situation, not his disease. Watching the film is also like having a conversation with your grandad where you abruptly realise that his views and opinions haven’t changed with the times. Of course, a movie can’t evolve (well, it could be “rebooted”), so Philadelphia is a snapshot of attitudes in early-nineties USA. And whatever qualities that existed then which led to Hanks winning the Oscar, and the screenplay being nominated for an Oscar, it no longer feels like a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

ice_stormThe Ice Storm*, Ang Lee (1997, USA). There is a type of domestic drama which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list a number of times and whose appeal I cannot fathom. Perhaps it speaks to the experience of being white, affluent and American. I am not American. I am not affluent. So it usually means zilch to me. The Ice Storm is based on a novel by Rick Moody; I have never read anything by Rick Moody. It takes place over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, in a well-off Connecticut suburb. There’s a wife-swapping party, which some husbands seem to enjoy, and some wives are very much set against. There are some weird and kooky college-age kids, who do weird and kooky things. Kevin Kline looks like he’s wearing parodies of 1970s clothes throughout, and Sigourney Weaver appears far too intense to be a bored housewife. And I really didn’t care about any of the characters, or any of their antics. Apparently, the film won best screenplay at Cannes, and Weaver won a BAFTA for best supporting actress. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 756


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Moving pictures, #14

The whole reading books instead of watching films thing isn’t quite working out as planned – well, inasmuch as it’s not really working out at all. Having said that, of late I’ve been binge-watching The Killing season one – unfortunately, like most television series, it didn’t quite survive the experience. About two-thirds into the season, it completely lost the plot, dragging suspects back and forth in front of the viewer, and missing out so many logical steps for the investigation to take, that it no longer mattered who actually committed the original murder, it was all about Lund and keeping her centre of whatever mad theory she was spinning that episode. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy it, and would like to watch later seasons. Anyway, I did watch some films as well, and here they are…

busbyGold Diggers of 1935, Busby Berkeley (1935, USA). I think this is the final film in the Busby Berkeley Collection, although there was a second collection released which seems to be deleted, which includes Gold Diggers of 1937, Hollywood Hotel, Varsity Show and Gold Diggers in Paris. Anyway, Gold Diggers of 1935 shares only the term “gold diggers” with Gold Diggers of 1933, and the only cast member to appear in both is Dick Powell – but then he appeared in pretty much every musical film made in the 1930s, or so it seems. The plot is also more of a comedy, and takes place almost entirely in a resort hotel for the rich. A rich old woman wants her daughter to marry a rich old man, but she falls for Powell, who has been paid to escort her. There’s a charity show in which they’re all involved – the rich old woman wants it done on the cheap, but those making the show want it to be as expensive as possible so they can skim some off the top. Gold Diggers of 1935 is perhaps best-known as the film which contains the Berkeley routine ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. Not the best film in the collection, but still a lot of fun.

enter_the_dragonEnter the Dragon*, Robert Clouse (1973, Hong Kong). I have a feeling I may have seen this many years ago: bits of it seemed familiar – although it’s just as likely I’ve seen parts of its on various telly programmes or something. Anyway, I’ve seen the entire film now… because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list… and it was pretty much a cheap 1970s action movie that appears to be held in much higher regard than it actually deserves. But when an actor becomes a cult figure, as Bruce Lee has done, then by definition their movies assume an importance out of all proportion to what they deserve. I’m not entirely sure why Lee became the cult figure he did – according to Wikipedia, it’s because of his role as Kato in The Green Hornet TV show, which lasted for a single season. In Enter the Dragon, he certainly proves himself… well, muscular, and a good martial artist (cinematically, at least; I’ve no way of judging his actual martial arts skills); and, of course, there’s that weird shrieking he does when he fights. But Enter the Dragon is a relatively ordinary and cheap 1970s Hong Kong/USA action movie, and in no way deserves to be on a 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

demyThe Pied Piper, Jacques Demy (1972, UK). One thing to be said for the Intégrale Jacques Demy collection is that its contents are varied. If I’d imagined Demy’s oeuvre consisted solely of films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Lola, I’ve certainly learnt otherwise from this box set. The Pied Piper is a case in point. It was  filmed in the UK and features a lot of familiar faces (to someone of my age, at least). The title role – it’s the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, as should be clear from the title – is played by Donovan, of ‘Mellow Yellow’ fame. The first time the Pied Piper, a travelling minstrel, performed, and it was a modern folk song, I thought, oh that works, it works really well. The contrast between modern music and period set dressing I thought an interesting approach. Admittedly, it’s probably the only thing that is interesting about the film. There’s a sense throughout the UK cast were enjoying themselves a little too much, at the film’s expense; and, true, Donovan is not much of a thespian – but in his defence, he can actually play his guitar, and there’s nothing more annoying in films than actors badly faking playing musical instruments. Overall, enjoyable, but not an especially good film.

fassbinder1Gods of the Plague, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). This first volume of Fassbinder’s movies has been, I admit, more of a chore to watch than the second volume. Possibly because Fassbinder seems to have spent much of his early years recycling ideas picked magpie-like from US noir and gangster films. The protagonist of Gods of the Plague is a gangster. Recently released from prison, he gets involved with two women, hooks up with the gangster who kills his brother, and eventally participates in a robbery of a supermarket. However, unlike the noir films which Fassbinder clearly loved, Gods of the Plague is far from snappy. The dialogue is much more reflective, often self-reflective, and the pace frequently slows to a crawl – those beloved pauses between question and answer, used so often to suggest an atmosphere of angst. I’m sympathetic to the idea of exploring themes and concepts using genres of milieu with which they’re not normally associated, and from what I’ve seen so far it’s something Fassbinder spent a lot of time doing – not always to good effect. Gods of the Plague is also apparently the second in a loose trilogy, preceded by Love is Colder than Death and followed by The American Soldier. All three were shot in black and white. They likely need rewatching, and the collection was a good investment, but at first blush, their appeal is not immediately obvious.

exilesThe Exiles*, Kent MacKenzie (1961, USA). I saw  this film discussed on Twitter, and a day or two later I was sent it as a rental DVD. It’s a documentary, one of several on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Most of which, it has to be said, have been a bit of a mixed bag. The problem with documentaries – and I say this as a fan of Sokurov’s films – is that they’re often judged on their subject more than they are their approach to that subject. Admittedly, when a topic is worth documenting, should be documented, it’s hard not to think kindly on the documentary. The topics of some of Sokurov’s documentaries may be somewhat esoteric, or perhaps not even immediately obvious, but the manner in which the film unfolds is fascinating and impressive. The Exiles, however, is one of those documentaries that tells an important story in an unadorned style, and so appears to be celebrated chiefly for its topic. The exiles of the title are members of American Indian Nations who live working-class lives in Los Angeles, and The Exiles is an unadorned look at their existence. The subjects show no self-consciousness before the camera – and equally no self-editing: they behave precisely as they would had no camera been present. It’s clearly not confidence, but lack of self-awareness… which only makes the topic of The Exiles even more heartbreaking and sad than its subject would suggest. This is a film that has only recently been released on DVD, and it definitely deserves to be seen.

dil_chahta_haiDil Chahta Hai, Farhan Akhtar (2001, India). Bollywood films have now become part of my rental list, but there are rather a lot of them so I have to be a bit picky… but this one seemed to have good reviews and be held in high regard… Three young men, all close friends, each have their own experience with love. The film is mostly told in flashback, which seems to be a Bollywood thing. Akash is a total prat and in a nightclub tries chatting up a woman only to be thumped by her fiancé. Later, he’s sent to Australia to run a branch of his parents’ business, and finds himself sitting next to the same woman on the plane. They get chatting become friends, and he falls in loive… eventually manages to steal her from her fiancé… at the actual wedding. Sameer’s parents have arranged a marriage for him – he’s get against the idea… until he meets his intended. But she’s in a relationship, so he has to be content with being friends only. But then she and her boyfriend split, so Sameer proposes. And Sid is an artist who falls in love with a neighbour, an older woman and an alcholic – much to the horror of his friends and family. In fact, the film opens in the hospital where the woman is dying of cirrohsis of the liver. Of course, there’s the usual Bollywood singing and dancing. But… well, it all seemed a bit yuppie. Everyone drives Lexuses. They’re all well-off. Even the part of the film set in Australia is more Darling Point than Muriel’s Wedding. It sort of spoiled it all a bit – everyone was so well-off, you pretty much expected they would come out of it all okay. The World Of Apu this was not.

fassbinder1Rio das Morte, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971, Germany). The title refers to a region in Brazil, which contains treasure according to a map found by a pair of dimwitted young men in Munich (and they also think it’s in Peru). So they try to drum up cash for the journey to South America, and make plans to fly there and put their map to good use. Their girlfriends are less keen on the project. Rio das Morte is plainly more an an examination of idle youth in 1970s Munich, than it is of the power of dreams to distort lives – if, sadly, only because the two young men are plainly out of their depth right from the start. There is a cringe-inducing conversation with a travel agent in which the dreams of one of the two young men is shown to be complete nonsense – and yet he does not seem to notice. In fact, when the pair approach a business man for funding ,and he demands cash flow projections and the like, they see it merely as a series of hoops they must jump through before they will be gifted the cash – and they seem equally mystified when the cash fails to present itself because their plan is rubbish (a situation Fassbinder mocks by having the secretary laugh mockingly at each element of their plan). Fassbinder did not, as a rule, to my mind make mean films, but Rio das Morte does feel uncharacteristically like one. As I said earlier, the films in this first volume DVD box set have proven less immeduately likeable than those in Volume 2, but I suspect that means they will also weather repeated watchings more robustly.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 739


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Moving pictures, #11

I’m pretty much up to date now, and this post only includes a single film from the list. In all other respects, a fairly typical spread, featuring directors I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

naked_kissThe Naked Kiss, Samuel Fuller (1964, USA). Fuller’s Shock Corridor, filmed around the same time, is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I watched it and was much impressed. This movie appeared as a trailer on the DVD I watched of that film, so I decided to buy Criterion Blu-ray editions of both. As you do. But only now have I got around to watching The Naked Kiss. And… it’s exactly what I expected. And exactly as good as I expected. Which is: pretty damn good. Constance Towers (the girlfriend in Shock Corridor) plays a prostitute who flees her pimp after he abuses her, and ends up in the small town of Grantville. The local head copper directs Towers to a brothel across the river, but she decides it’s time to go straight and – because the man from the big house, and most eligible bachelor in town, has financed a wing for disabled children at the local hospital – decides to become a nurse’s aide on that wing. She gets to meet the big man, the two fall in love and become engaged… The copper, of course, is convinced it’s all an act, although it does in fact seem genuine. But just before the marriage, Towers catches her fiancé abusing a child, brains him and accidentally kills him. The copper sees this as vindication, but when the child is found and confirms Towers’s story he has to re-assess his opinion of her. This is pretty strong stuff, but then Fuller was never one to shy away from difficult material. Towers is good in the lead – she carries the film, in fact – and even Fuller’s shock opening, in which Towers attacks her pimp – filmed as if the camera were the pimp – and he rips off her wig revealing she is bald, is both arresting and highly effective at establishing her character. Worth seeing.

alice_creedThe Disappearance of Alice Creed, J Blakeson (2009, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and the reviews seemed positive so I gave it a go and… It’s one of those tight little thrillers with a small cast – three in this case – which work or fail depending on the quality of the cast. Fortunately, in this case they have Gemma Arterton, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston, all of which possess the acting chops required. Arterton is kidnapped by Marstan and Compston, and the film pretty much takes place entirely within the flat where they hold her prisoner. However, there’s more going than there initially appears – not just between kidnappers and victim, but also between the kidnappers as well. Perhaps the twists were signposted a little too heavily, but I’ve seen much worse thrillers with much bigger budgets and A-list casts – in fact, I’ve given up after ten minutes on such movies. But this one is a taut little well-made thriller and worth a watch.

demyLe bel indifférent, Jacques Demy (1957, France). And so I continue to work my way through my Demy collection, and while I certainly think it was worth buying I can’t say every film in it has been a winner. This is a short film, less than an hour long, and consists of a woman wandering around an apartment giving a monologue, while her eponymous lover is, er, indifferent. It’s based on a 1939 play by Jean Cocteau, and Demy films it with a limited colour palette and stages it as if it were indeed a play (with opening and closing curtains too). I found myself somewhat… indifferent to it.

fassbinder1The Merchant of Four Seasons, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971, Germany). And so I continue to work my way through my Fassbinder collection, and while this first volume of films from 1969 to 1972 has, I think, proven less satisfying than the second volume of films from 1973 to 1982, I’m still glad I have it. As for this film, it seems to be Fassbinder’s try at a kitchen-sink drama, inasmuch as it’s a domestic drama which contains everything but the kitchen-sink. The fruit peddler of the title is in a loveless marriage, and pines for his past career as a policeman. His mother doesn’t like him, his wife thinks he’s having an affair, he drinks heavily… and then he has a heart attack. After he recovers, he reconciles with his wife and then meets an old friend from his Foreign Legion days… who he first gives a job and then invites to live with him and his wife, and so finds himself replaced… Grim, German realist stuff. Perhaps not the most engaging Fassbinder I’ve seen so far, but a step up from some of the earlier experimental films.

trouble_paradiseTrouble in Paradise*, Ernst Lubitsch (1932, USA). Posh con man meets posh con woman, it’s love at first sight. Years later, they get involved with the profligate heiress of a perfume fortune… and why is this on the list exactly? The leads – Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis – are all perfectly watchable, the script has plenty of snappy one-liners, and there are clear character arcs. But it’s all a bit ordinary, and though it may well have done really well when it was released , I can’t honestly see what makes it a candidate for the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

barbary_coastBarbary Coast, Howard Hawks (1935, USA). A gold digger, Miriam Hopkins, arrives in San Francisco in 1850, only to discover her fiancé has been murdered. So she takes a job as a croupier at local gangster Edward G Robinson’s casino. And the rest of the film is basically Robinson strutting around like the worst kind of cinema villain, while everyone else in San Francisco runs around scared of him. Obviously – the title is sort of a clue, although it was apparently the actual name of San Francisco’s red light district from the 1860s to the 1910s – that’s the intent… but it makes for annoying viewing. He’s so reprehensible and powerful a villain that his eventual downfall is inevitable and his depredations prior to that somewhat unbelievable. There’s a good guy, of course, Joel McCrea, who plays a  complete naïf who manages to confound Robinson and win Hopkins’s heart. But it’s not enough to offset Robinson’s pantomime villainy.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 731


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Moving pictures 2016, #7

Carrying on with getting my film posts to get up to date…

come_and_seeCome and See*, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia). The opening of this movie did not bode well. Two boys, playing at war, while one of them puts on a hoarse voice intended to sound adult… but then the older of the two starts digging where corpses have been buried and finally unearths a rifle. Later, partisans visit his home and recruit him, against the wishes of his mother, who knows that her survival, and that of her daughters, is uncertain if he leaves. But he goes, and becomes a Soviet partisan fighting the Nazis. And the film goes from meh to good and then to great in relatively short order. The boy is separated from his unit, and hides out with a girl his own age. They return to his village, but everyone has gone (they have been massacred – he does not realise this, but she does). The two meet up with the partisans, but their leader has been badly injured by the Germans. Eventually, the boy infiltrates a village and pretends to be resident there. But an SS unit arrives, locks everyone in the church and sets fire to the building. This is pretty brutal stuff. Perhaps the Soviets are all a bit more noble than they actually were (cf Larisa Shepitko’s Ascent) and the Germans are painted as complete animals – when likely all sides exhibited such behaviour – but, considering I’d known nothing about this film before renting it, and its title is not exactly much of a clue, I ended up thinking it very, very good indeed. And definitely a movie that belonged on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. I’m surprised it’s not better known than it is.

demyL’évènement le plus important depuis que l’homme a marché sur la lune, Jacques Demy (1973, France). Marcello Mastroianni is a driving instructor, married to Catherine Deneuve, a hairdresser. One day, Mastroianni is not feeling well, so he visits the doctor… and is told he is pregnant. He becomes the centre of a big media circus, and other men begin reporting pregnancies too. (The film, incidentally, was released in the US as A Slightly Pregnant Man, which is a pretty naff title, whereas the original title is, er, long.) Sadly, while the quirky humour in the film never really quite works, the brightly-coloured production design is a lot of fun. Okay, so Deneuve is too elegant to really carry off the 197s outfits she wears, but Mastroianni fits his role perfectly. It’s all a bit of colourful French fluff, not only of its time but also screaming from every frame that it’s a film of the early seventies. I quite enjoyed it – which I guess means the intégrale Jacques Demy collection is currently batting about 50:50, which is not bad odds for a DVD collection.

hawkHawk the Slayer, Terry Marcel (1980, UK). I remember this from year ago – decades ago… After all, who can forget the elf who can fire arrows like a machinegun, or Bernard Bresslaw playing a giant with two eyes, or a dwarf eating a fish whole, or Jack Palance as the villain chewing up the scenery with gusto… Um, that last applies to most genre films of the 1980s, but never mind. Anyway, I remembered Hawk the Slayer with some fondness from all those years ago, so I thought it worth watching again (that is, when I stumbled across a copy for £1 in a charity shop). And so it is. Daft, of course, with a cast of familiar faces from UK films and TV, who are clearly in it for the money but determined to have fun. The plot echoes that of a zillion sword & sorcery stories, and there’s nothing really new that Hawk the Slayer brings to the genre. The various fight-scenes were plainly staged to resemble those of Westerns, and it sort of worked; but it’s not like this movie will ever be considered Great Art, or even Slightly-Better-than-Average Art. One thing I hadn’t realised, however, is how much the soundtrack rips off Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds. There are riffs and melodies which are uncannily similar to Wayne’s magnum opus. Not that such music seems all that appropriate to a high fantasy film… although it does seem weirdly appropriate to a nineteen-eighties high fantasy film. Go figure.

graceGrace of Monaco, Olivier Dahan (2014, France). I’m a fan of Grace Kelly, she’s one of my favourite actresses. Her career was famously cut short in 1956 by her marriage to Prince Rainer of Monaco, and I can’t help wondering what would have happened had she continued acting. Longevity certainly didn’t harm the careers of any number of her contemporaries, from Maureen O’Hara to Cyd Charisse (um, on the other hand, Charisse was in Warlords of Atlantis…). Anyway, while Kelly made some stone-cold classics, displayed, and was recognised for, her acting chops, she also made several pretty forgettable movies. But Grace of Monaco, in which Nicole Kidman plays Kelly, is about her after she married Rainer… and single-handledly prevented France from invading and annexing Monaco. Ah, you didn’t know about that? Probably because that’s not what actually happened. I hadn’t known Monaco began offering French corporations tax-free status if they moved their operations to Monaco, and this upset the French government. Who responded by telling Monaco it had to a) start levying tax on the corporations, and b) pay the tax raised to the French government. When Monaco refused, France blockaded the principality. Apparently, the rest of the world seemed unconcerned at this – one country threatening to invade another because its tax laws were preferable to companies. You’d never see that happening now, and not just because the corporations these days have so much power they can actually refuse to pay the tax they do owe, even in G12 countries. Anyway, Princess Grace gave a speech about it all at a Red Cross Ball, at which were present the great and good, including President de Gaulle, and it melted his heart and he lifted the blockade. Or something. When I started watching this film, Kidman didn’t really convince as Kelly, but as the story progressed she seemed to settle into the part and her portrayal became more believable. She isn’t Kelly, the resemblance is not even slight, but I suspect she may have been the best actress for the part. (Although, are there Grace Kelly impersonators? I guess so. There are Madonna and Cher and Barbra Streisand impersonators, after all.) Grace of Monaco has been comprehensively panned, and with mostly good reason. It does seem a bit unfair to criticise a biopic for being inaccurate, because you’d be hard-pressed to find one that is accurate. And that is a solid cast there – Kidman, Tim Roth, Frank Langella, Parker Posey, Derek Jacobi…  It also seems to capture the period resonably accurately, as far as I can judge. But, for all that, it’s just not… very dramatic. It builds up tension and then Grace Kelly sort of decides to take her new role seriously – she even learns French! – and then she solves all of Monaco’s woes with a tearful speech. Sadly, not an especially good memorial to Grace Kelly.

demyUne chambre en ville, Jacques Demy (1980, France). This is one of Demy’s sung dialogue films, and I’m still not entirely sure they work. The title refers to a room rented by a striking shipyard worker in the house of a sympathetic baroness. Although he has a steady girlfriend he plans to marry, he spends the night the wife a television shop owner, and the two fall in love. He tells his girlfriend, while the wife goes to tell her husband… who kills himself in despair. So she goes to her mother – who happens to be the baroness. But the shipyard worker is fatally injured during a demonstration, is taken to the baroness’s, where he dies in the arms of the telelvision shop owner’s wife. Who then shoots herself. It is not, perhaps, the most original story in the world. I seem to recall some guy called Bill did something similar about 400 years ago, and there was that Bollywood film I mentioned a Moving pictures post or two ago… It was all a bit fraught, the mid-fifties mise en scène didn’t have the benefit of the bright colours of the Demy film mentioned above, and the sung dialogue doesn’t realyl work for me. I shall probably have to watch it again some time.

watkinsCulloden, Peter Watkins (1964, UK). I had to buy a French DVD collection because Watkins’s films are not available in the UK on DVD. Well, there were BFI editions of The War Game and Culloden, but they’ve now combined them into a dual edition omnibus, Culloden + The War Game, and eureka! have released a Blu-ray of Punishment Park (after I bought the collection, naturally)… But even so, he was a remarkable film-maker and his films should be readily available in this country as a matter of course. Culloden, made for the BBC, is framed as a fly-on-the-wall (so to speak) documentary of the eponymous battle as it takes place. People involved in the battle are interviewed, both before and after, and the narrator puts everything in context reportage voice-over. It is surprisingly effective. Even the fact this is a fifty year old television film doesn’t doesn’t lessen its impact. And it’s informative too. Recommended.

osamaOsama*, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan). A doctor, whose husband was killed in the Soviet invasion, lives with her mother and daughter, but the Taliban have shut down the hospital where she works and the lack of man in the household means there’s now no money coming in. So the grandmother persuades the daughter to protend to be a boy, so “he” can get a job and earn enough for them to buy food. But then the Taliban recruit all the local boys for the madrassa – include Osama, as the disguised girl is now calling herself – and her masquerade becomes a thousand times harder. They really were a nasty bunch of men, the Taliban, and Osama pulls no punches in depicting just how evil they were. This is not a movie that is going to leave you feeling good about the world – although clearly that was not its intent. But you could always watch those films about a bunch Spandex-called nincompoops saving the world from alien invasions instead.

fassbinder1Love is Colder than Death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1969, Germany). Another early Fassbinder, again black-and-white, which opens with Fassbinder lying on the floor. It turns out he’s a hood, but he refuses to go work for the local syndicate. So they set another hood to follow him, and they sort of wander about town doing gangster-type things, including shooting people in a restaurant and robbing a local bank. I haven’t taken to these homages to classic Hollywood as I have other films by Fassbinder – and I have to wonder why so many budding film director of the twentieth century, particularly ones in post-WWII Europe, felt a need to make them.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 721


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Moving pictures 2016, #6

Cracking on with these…

yeelenYeelen*, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali). I had to buy a copy of this as it’s only available on DVD in the US. That seems to be true of a number of films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. In fact, the cinema of African nations is poorly represented on DVD in the UK altogether. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun from Chad has three titles available out of six; Ousmane Sembène from Senegal also has three out of a dozen; and Souleymane Cissé from Mali has none – to name only three directors. Having now, with Yeelen, seen films by all three of these film-makers, I wish more of them were available. Haroun’s Daratt and Sembène’s Moolaadé are both excellent, but Cissé’s Yeelen is something special. It’s based on a Malian legend, probably from the thirteenth century, and depicts a young man with magical powers as he passes through various kingdoms, pursued by his father. It’s all slightly mad, in a way that makes sense within the story. When the young man, Nianankoro, tells someone they can’t move because of his magic, then they’re frozen. And remain so until he tells them otherwise. I’ve had to buy a number of DVDs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list simply in order to watch them, but not all of them have been keepers. This one, however, definitely is. I loved the world it presented, I loved how well it presented it. Recommended.

road_to_corinthThe Road to Corinth, Claude Chabrol (1967, France). I’ve seen a number of Chabrol’s films, but I don’t think this one is held in especially high regard, even by his fans. It was free on Amazon Prime, which is why I watched it. It wasn’t very good. A magician entering Greece by car is stopped by the police, who search his vehicle… and find a mysterious black box full of electronics. During interrogation, the man admits the box is one of many scattered throughout Greece will jam a NATO radar network; the man then bites on a cyanide pill. Then there are two CIA agents, and when one is killed, his wife investigates his death, despite being told not to by the CIA and the Greek authorities. With the help of the other agent, she figures out where the black boxes are hidden, there’s a showdown with the villain, who gets his just desserts. A particularly charmless thriller: not even the setting could make up for the lacklustre performances and nonsense plot.

demyLady Oscar, Jacques Demy (1979, Japan). Demy obviously liked a bit of variety – Lady Oscar is an historical film set in France, filmed in the UK with an English cast, and based on a Japanese manga. Some mentions of the film claim that Lady Oscar hides her gender, but she is openly a woman, she just dresses like a man and plays a man’s role as body guard to Marie Antoinette. She’s even in a sort of relationship with her childhood friend. But that doesn’t go so well, and they don’t meet again until the Revolution and the assault on the Bastille. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film – it seemed well enough directed, although never quite wholly convincing as the plainly low budget had prevented a serious recreation of the period. The cast were passable in their roles, without standing out. But it all felt a bit, well, uninspired. Like an historical film lacking that certain something to make it spark. I’ll no doubt watch it again at some point, but a first pass didn’t impress.

immortalThe Immortal Story, Orson Welles (1968, France). I didn’t realise until five minutes into this that it was an adaptation of a Karen Blixen story I’d read only a month or so before. Unfortunately, that pretty much spoiled it for me. The story, as the title implies, is quite memorable. A nasty rich man hears a story about a sailor who is approached one day ashore by an old man who tells him that he needs his services and will pay for them. The old man has a young wife but is without an heir. He’d like the sailor to sleep with his wife and hopefully make her pregnant. But the rich man, who is near death, is told by his assistant that the story is an urban myth – every sailor knows a sailor it has happened to. So the rich man decides to make it come true, so at least one sailor can tell the story truthfully. He hires Jeanne Moreau to act as his wife, and then goes looking for a sailor… I really should watch more of Welles’s films – those I’ve seen I’ve thought generally good, and while this is one of his lesser works, his oeuvre is certainly one that few US directors can boast (although commercial success seems to have mostly eluded him, given that his films were made in a variety of countries). Having said that, in this case I think you’d be better off reading the Blixen story (and, to be honest, I’d sooner Welles had adapted ‘The Tempest’, a better story, I thought, than this one).

fassbinder1The American Soldier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). Not to be confused with Wim Wender’s The American Friend, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith Ripley novel. The American Soldier is an early Fassbinder, filmed in black-and-white, about a man hired by three police officers to kill various villains in the city. Having worked my way through the second volume of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder collection, I’m discovering that’s no real preparation for the first volume. The films in this collection date from 1969 to 1972, when Fassbinder was starting out. On the one hand, they include experimental works which appeal to me – The Nicklashausen Journey, for example – but on the other they also feature early black-and-white films that feel like student works. This one feels too consciously a commentary on US noir films, borrowing their imagery and tropes – and there is, sadly, nothing ironic in appropriating tropes from a popular artform and giving them a local application. Or rather, it might seem like a good idea at the time, and even for a year or two afterwards, but it doesn’t stand the test of time – and while the films from this collection I have so far watched certainly showcase Fassbinder’s excellent eye for cinematic drama, some of his early works could clearly have done with more New German Cinema and less Hollywood plagiarism. Nonetheless, it’s worth picking up both volumes if you’re a cineaste.

londonRobinson in Space, Patrick Keiller (1997, UK). Robinson in Space follows the same pattern as London (see here), with Paul Scofield recounting anecdotes about Robinson as the camera focuses on various part of England. To be honest, I don’t recall what the film is actually about, it’s a bit like listening to that really interesting bloke telling his stories down the pub, but instead of looking at his ugly mug you see the towns and countryside of England. I plan to watch more Keiller, and indeed watch this film again – and I think it bears repeated rewatchings. Like Benning’s films, despite Scofield’s narration, there is so much more there than appears on the screen, and part of the appeal is in figuring out the narrative which accompanies the voiceover and visuals. Having said that, I suspect there is something very personal about one’s reponse to this film – it is about Thatcher’s Britain, and I lived through that period, it affected me directly, and I also saw its effects on others on a daily basis (but then I fled the country, but we won’t mention that). My point being that Robinson in Space felt somewhat academic in criticising Thatcher and her legacy, when I felt it needed to be more visceral. Perhaps it’s Scofield’s voice – he sounds too erudite and, well, comfortable. Surely a film about Thatcher’s Britain should involve pain and misery and deprivation? But now I’m probably projecting and I should move on…

chinese_ghostA Chinese Ghost Story*, Siu-tung Ching (1987, Hong Kong). I thought I’d seen this several years ago, but I think that might have been The Bride with White Hair, which I think I owned many years ago and which is also a Chinese ghost story but isn’t actually titled A Chinese Ghost Story. A young tax collector tries to collect his first debt and discovers his book of records has been ruined by the rain. Without any money, he is forced to spend the night in a haunted temple, where he meets a young woman and falls in love with her. But she’s actually a ghost, and even though he knows this he still goes back to spend another night there. And from that point on, it all gets a bit frantic, with a priest and master swordsman who helps the tax collector, a battle with a powerful tree demoness, lots of zombie-like ghosts, and a promise to bury the young woman’s remains somewhere more auspicious but which urn is hers? This is one of those films that, while enjoyable and perhaps even ground-breaking in its time, seems to struggle to justify its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I mean, I enjoyed it; but I also remember enjoying The Bride with White Hair, which is not on the list.

pret_a_toutPrêt à tout, Nicolas Cuche (2014, France). I’d actually tried watching some Richard Gere thriller on Amazon Prime, something about a Russian assassin long believed dead who kills a senator, so they bring in retired CIA agent Gere to track down the assassin except Gere is the assassin, and this twist is revealed in the first fifteen minutes… So I went looking for something else to watch and stumbled across Prêt à tout. Which proved to be much better. A slacker at college is in love with fellow student Alice, an activist. She, of course, is oblivious. But then the slacker and two of his mates invent a website which they sell for millions of dollars, and they decamp to Thailand to live the lives of the indolent rich. One day the slacker sees Alice on television, leading a strike at the failing powdered drink factory where she works. So the slacker buys the factory, but pretends to be just one of the workers in order to get closer to Alice. It doesn’t go quite as well as intended – she is still oblivious, even after he babysits her young son and the two become fast friends. Then the money runs out… An undemanding rom com, with a couple of likeable leads and a nice socialist spin on the usual rags to riches tale.

adalineThe Age Of Adaline, Lee Toland Krieger (2015, USA). A young woman crashes her car into a freezing lake, but a lightning strike revives her… and stops her from aging. That was in 1937. And throughout the decades following, she has remained twenty-nine years old, changing identities when needed. But at a New Year’s Eve party she meets an old beau, who doesn’t understand why she hasn’t aged… And there are lots of ways this film  could have gone, but it chose to take a good idea and turn it into mush. Which is a shame. It handles the period detail mostly well, the lead is a bit of a blank but I’ve seen worse, there are even a couple of familiar faces knocking about… but it all amounts to nothing since a week later I’ve completely forgotten what it was all about. And that’s despite liking the central premise and wanting to like the film. Hollywood does that to you – it says, here’s a neat idea that would make a good story, and here are some actors you’ve watched in the past and liked… and then you watch the film and you realise you can’t remember any of it. They should score films on that, decide if a film is a classic if someone can remember the plot a week after watching the movie. This one would fail.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 719


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The year in moving pictures

In 2015, I decided to try and watch as many films as I could on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, started subscribing to a second DVD rental library, and bought myself an Amazon Fire TV Stick. As a result, I watched 571 films during the year, of which 115 were rewatches (some more than once). In among those were 170 from the aforementioned list.

The bulk of the movies I watched were DVDs or Blu-rays I’d purchased myself. (I bought a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch Region A Blu-rays.) But I also watched quite a number from Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. See below.

2015_films_by_source

Kinopalæst is the cinema in Denmark where I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Light is the cinema in Leeds where I saw SPECTRE. Yes, they were the only two films I saw at the cinema. I did quite well on my Amazon Fire TV Stick – 48 movies, all of which were included free with Amazon Prime.

In terms of genre, drama seems to have done especially well, although admittedly it’s a broad term and perhaps some of the films I’ve categorised as drama might better be labelled something else. Anyway, see below.

2015_films_by_genre

The two Bollywood films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – or rather, one of them was: the other, Deewaar, proved to be a 2004 film of that title and not the 1975 one on the list (although both starred Amitabh Bachchan). Although last year I rented several of the plays from the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection from the late 1970s/early 1980s, the one Shakespeare movie this year was Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which I thought very good.

By decade, the films I watched pretty much follows the same graph for books read: the current decade is the most popular (surprisingly), and there’s a steady increase through the decades which peaks at the 1960s. See below.

2015_films_by_decade

The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century were a result of watching some early Dreyer silent movies and a DVD collection, Early Cinema – Primitives and Pioneers, because one of the films on it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

By nation makes for an interesting graph. Although I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which includes movies from many different nations (but over half are from the US, sadly), I’ve been a fan of world cinema for years and many of my favourite directors work in non-Anglophone cinema. See below.

films_by_country

The high number from Russia is no doubt due mostly to Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director; for Denmark because of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and for Germany it’s probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only two from Sweden – I obviously need to watch more Bergman…

Speaking of favourite directors, Sokurov comes out top for 2015 with 33 (most, it has to be said, were rewatches). Second is Jacques Tati, a 2015 “discovery”, at 15, then James Benning, another 2015 “discovery”, at 13. The remaining top ten goes as follows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (12), Alfred Hitchcock (11), Carl Theodor Dreyer (10), Lars von Trier (8), Sergei Eisenstein (6), and lastly George Stevens, Michael Curtiz, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jean Cocteau (5).

I finished the year having seen 703 movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a quite large pile of DVDs and Blu-rays on my To Be Watched list. I plan to keep on with the list in 2015, although I think I’ll take it a bit slower, perhaps spend some evenings each week reading rather than film-watching. Plus, it’s getting to the stage now where I have to purchase titles in order to watch them as they’re not available for rental. We’ll see how it goes.


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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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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Moving pictures, #30

A wider spread of films this week – in terms of years (five decades) and countries of origin (five nations). Only one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however. And another film that is really bad and I’ve no idea why I bothered buying it or watching it. Eh.

bulldogDeadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do, Ralph Thomas (1967/1969, UK). There must have been something in the water back in the 1960s, with all the debonair spy movies that appeared – not just the early 007s, but Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Maroc 7, Our Man in Marrakesh and… these two starring Bulldog Drummond. Who, er, isn’t strictly speaking a spy. And he originally appeared in the 1930s. He’s some sort of man-about-town who acts as a troubleshooter for an uncle in insurance. Or something. But he does do battle with a megalomaniac. And there are plenty of daft gadgets and nubile women in bikinis. Deadlier Than The Male opens with Elke Sommer poisoning an oil baron aboard his private jet, and then parachuting to safety as the plane explodes behind her. It transpires she was paid to do this by a UK oil company, but the oil company decides not to pay her fee – at least not until one of the directors is killed. But now there’s another person standing in the way of the oil company’s expansion, this time the ruler of a small Arab sheikhdom, who Drummond just happened to go to school with. So Drummond heads off to visit his chum on the Italian Riviera, partly to protect the sheikh and partly to discover who is Sommer’s boss. The film ends with a shoot-out on a giant mechanical cheesboard. Bonkers. Some Girls Do is more of the same. This time it’s a UK project to build the world’s first supersonic airliner (hey, we did that for real!), but the project is being sabotaged. It turns out the saboteurs are nubile young women with “robot brains”. Or something. The science is complete nonsense. The villain, for example, uses a subsonic ray to take control of the supersonic airliner. Good luck with that. “Supersonic” means “faster than sound”. Your ray will never catch up with the plane. Even for its subgenre, this is pretty brainless entertainment, without either the silly humour of Matt Helm and Derek Flint, the po-facedness of Bond, or the colourful locations of Maroc 7 and Our Man in Marrakesh.

starship_apocStarship Apocalypse, Neil Johnson (2014, USA). This is the sequel to Starship Rising, a film that was so bad I, er, bought the sequel. Johnson specialises in low-budget genre films, which I guess sort of makes him the self-published Kindle genre writer of the movie world. The set dressing in the two films by him I’ve now watched is cheap and nasty, the acting is poor, the dialogue terrible, and the stories derivative. This one has a disfigured, allegedly immortal emperor, and a small group – the entire cast of the film probably numbers less than a dozen – of rebels, who have this fantastic starship, or something. The only way to watch this film is pissed, which does sort of make figuring out what’s going on a bit difficult. I’ll probably have to watch both films again, but I’m not sure I want to…

american dreamsAmerican Dreams (lost and found), James Benning (1984, USA). It probably comes as no surprise that Benning has become one of my favourite directors. He hasn’t knocked Sokurov off the top spot – their oeuvres are almost impossible to compare, but Sokurov has at least made several narrative films (or rather, not documentaries) – but I’d definitely put Benning in the top five. And it’s because of films like American Dreams (lost and found). I can see why Benning’s Deseret made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as it’s probably the most accessible of his films (that I’ve seen to date) – and even then it comprises static shots of scenery in Utah, countryside and towns, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1851 to 1995. American Dreams (lost and found) uses a much more interesting technique to tell its story. In fact, it uses three techniques. The images are of baseball cards and ephemera about Hank Aaron (apparently a great baseball star, although his fame is lost on me as I’ve never followed the sport). The soundtrack consists of a variety of spoken word excerpts, such Martin Luther King’s famous speech, or the first words spoken on the Moon, all iconographic moments in US recent history, alternating with popular music from the 1950s through to the very early 1970s. As well as both of these, a line of handwritten text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. This last is from the diary of a man who plans to murder Richard Nixon, and it reads exactly like the sort of thing written by someone who would plan such a thing – weird spelling mistakes, completely deluded, an oddly prurient but obscene fascination with women… As the film progresses, the story told by the diary deepens, until it is eventually revealed as the real diary of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to kill US presidental candidate George Wallace in 1972. Fascinating stuff.

close_upClose-Up*, Abbas Kiarostami (1990, Iran). I believe this is the film which brought Kiarostami to western critics’ notice, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a documentary in which the people involved re-enact the events of the film’s topic, intercut with footage of the actual court case which results. A man meets a woman in a bus and tells her he is the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The man visits the woman and her family several times, and tries to raise cash from them for his next film. A journalist meets the imposter, realises he is not Makhmalbaf, and the police are called in to arrest him. Kiarostami interviews the journalist, the imposter and the family, and also films them re-enacting the events which led to the arrest. After the court case, the real Makhmalbaf turns up and gives the imposter a lift on his motorbike to the family’s home so he can apologise for trying to con money out of them. It all adds up to a very clever film, which feels partly like a documentary and partly like fiction, and which plays games with the viewer compact, to the extent it’s not clear where the lines blur. Kiarostami is one of the most important directors currently making films, and this film gives ample reason why.

fassbinder1The Niklashausen Journey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). I have a soft spot for films which are little more than actors declaiming political arguments instead of dialogue in a story, such as Miklós Jancsó’s The Confrontation… And now this one. The story is based on a true story from the fifteenth century, about a shepherd who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a vision and promptly tried to start an uprising against the church and landowners. It didn’t succeed. Fassbinder uses a mix of contemporary and historical costumes, and has his actors discuss revolutions and historical forces while notionally acting out the life of the shepherd. It works surprisingly well. Most of the scenes are static, with the cast either standing or sitting still while they speak. And yes, I ended up buying the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection 69-72, Volume 1, so now I have both sets – and they’re worth it even if not every film in them is entirely successful.

rabidRabid, David Cronenberg (1977, Canada). A charity shop find. Sadly, it was the only early Croneneberg they had. It is, unsurprisingly, distinctively one of his. A young couple are involved in a motorbike accident. She is badly burned, but fortunately the accident took place near a famous plastic surgery clinic. The head of the clinic employs an experimental method to graft skin over the burned area, and as a result the young woman, er, grows an orifice in her armpit, yes really, which has a stinger inside, yes really. She uses this to feed. Her victims cannot remember afterwards what happened, and then some time later they turn into zombies. Whoever the zombies bite, also becomes a zombie. It turns into an epidemic, its cause completely flummoxing the Canadian authorities. It’s a bit too daft a premise to shock as horror, although it works quite well as a completely bonkers thriller. Porn actress Marilyn Chambers plays the young woman, in her first straight acting role. Not a bad film, although it’s clear not much money was thrown at it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 650


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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.