I’ve been binge-watching box sets mostly for the past few weeks, hence the gap between the last Movie roundup post and this one. That’s seven seasons of Beck – which I watched partly to improve my Swedish… so, of course, they go and introduce a Norwegian as a major character in series 6… Plus two seasons of Alias – and no, I’ve no idea why I’m watching it. It’s a series that jumps the shark every episode. But that’s JJ Abrams for you. And a rewatch of Farscape, which is holding up pretty well.
Grimsby, Louis Leterrier (2016, UK). Every Sacha Baron Cohen movie seems to have an infamous scene. It’s almost as if his films are designed around them. If you need to ask what the scene is in this film, then you really don’t want to know. It’s ostensibly a spy thriller, with Cohen as an intellectually-challenged football hooligan from Grimsby and Mark Strong his urbane super-spy brother – who is framed for for assassination and has to turn to his brother for help. There are some funny moments, but far too many cringe-inducing ones.
Dhoom 2, Sanjay Gadhvi (2006, India). The first film was relatively low budget, but did so well Bollywood put more money into its sequel. Most of that money seems to have gone into CGI. In this sequel, the police inspector and his ex-bike dealer buddy are hot on the trail of a mysterious thief who robs high profile targets. But then a copycat turns up and, of course, it’s a gorgeous woman, so they partner up and… Whatever charm the first might have possessed has been lost under a desperate attempt to look cool. Even the item numbers are cringe-worthy. True, jumping the shark is just part of Bollywood’s cinematic language, but in Dhoom 2 it reaches heights even home audiences probably found hard to swallow.
Dhoom 3, Vijay Krishna Acarya (2013, India). In Bollywood, big budget movies like to show their budget on screen by… filming in locations such as New York and London. Even if setting the story there doesn’t make sense. Like this one. A bank forecloses on an Indian circus based in New York. Many years later, the son of the owner uses his background to pull a string of daring robberies. Somehow, the Indian police inspector and his dodgy bike dealer mate are brought in to catch the bad guy. The plot completely rips off The Prestige, but what’s most notable is that the lead actor looks like a Vulcan (see below) but behaves completely illogically. To be fair, this trilogy are fun, but you’ve need to go into them knowing what to expect.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Mel Brooks (1995, USA). Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun films is funny. Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles is funny. But Brooks directing Nielsen in Dracula: Dead and Loving It is… not funny. It’s pretty much Stoker’s story but with… I hesitate to use the word “jokes” as that would imply they might make you laugh. A desperately unfunny comedy. One to avoid.
Dragon Lord, Jackie Chan (1982, China). This is one of Chan’s period kung fu action/comedies and, to be honest, I prefer his modern films to his period pieces. Nominally a sequel to The Young Master, it has Chan as the wastrel son of local gentry, who gets into scrapes and, well, things happen. Some comic sequences, some fights, and a very thin plot. One for fans.
Boy, Taika Watiti (2010, New Zealand). This was Waititi’s second feature film, although apparently it was a project he worked on for many years before his debut feature film. An eleven year old boy’s father – played by Waititi himself – turns up after being released from prison, with two mates. They’re there to try and find cash they buried after their last robbery. But the boy wants to reconnect with his father and see if the reality matches the fantasy he has come to believe. This film is all about the boy’s voice, and it works perfectly. The humour is that slightly absurd humour Waititi does so well, the cast are mostly okay, although Boy, played by James Rolleston, is excellent, and Waititi and his two henchmen put in good turns. Definitely worth seeing.
With or Without You, Michael Winterbottom (1999, UK). Christopher Eccleston and Derval Kirwan are trying to have a kid but failing, when a French penpal of hers turns up for a visit. She doesn’t like her job, he regrets giving up his position in the RUC to join her dad’s firm, the French guy is easygoing and affable, and the sexual tension between the three is so manufactured you could could cut it with a butter knife. Eccleston manages a passable Belfast accent – to my ear, at least, although actual Norn Irish people might disagree (but at least it’s not Irish – and yes, I can tell the difference between the two). But for all that, it seems a bit 1980s for a 1999 film, although I’ve a feeling it’s actually set then but I can’t actually remember (the song the title references was a hit in 1987). Winterbottom made Code 46, a film which spectacularly failed to make sense of its premise or the world in which it was set. This earlier work is entirely forgettable.
Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA). The title refers to a retired industrialist who takes his wife on a tour of Europe. But she wants more than retirement, she wants a life he is not prepared to give – because she’s afraid that his retirement will age her. Dodsworth is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while that list is over-burdened with US movies, many of which actually aren’t that good, this one definitely deserves its place. It’s not that Walter Huston or Ruth Chatterton shine in the lead roles. Or that there’s some nice modernist design set design in the early part of the film, and the direction is good, with shots that are well framed and well blocked. It’s the script… it really is excellent, with some real insight and lines that show real understanding and development of character. Definitely worth seeing.
Latitude Zero, Ishiro Honda (1969, Japan). If you know the name Honda, you’ll have a pretty good idea what this film is like. And yet it’s not as batshit crazy as most of his work. Three men in a bathysphere are rescued by a mysterious submarine when an underwater volcano eruption breaks their umbilical. It turns out their rescuers are from a secret undersea city at latitude zero, peopled by scientists who the world believes to have died or vanished. And their actual rescuer is over two hundred years old. The secret scientific elite who secretly scientifically rule the world, or ignore the world, is hardly a new trope in science fiction, but I’ve not seen it used so overtly in a sf movie since, well, the last adaptation of a Jules Verne novel. There are monsters, of course – well, men, actually usually women, in monster suits – and they look just as risible as in Honda’s other films. But the submarines look sort of cool, and the undersea city looks pretty neat too. And there’s a cool twist at the end.
I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.
Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.
1Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.
2Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.
3The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.
4As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.
5The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.
Honourable mentions:Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.
1Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.
2The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.
3Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.
4Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.
5Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.
Honourable mentions:War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.
However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.
1Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.
3Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.
4In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.
5Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.
Honourable mentions:Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.
Not so varied nationally a half-dozen this time. But content-wise there’s plenty of variety…
You’ll Never Get Rich, Sidney Lanfield (1941, USA). My mother found a Rita Hayworth box set in a charity shop and lent it me because I like Hollywood films from the first half of the twentieth century. Plus, it included a couple of stone-cold classics – Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai – I wanted to watch again. You’ll Never Get Rich, a Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth vehicle I’d not seen before, turned out to be minor work from both. Astaire looks almost skeletal in it, and he’s about as far through as a kipper in pretty much all of his films. Theatre owner Robert Benchley (an excellent comic actor of the time) has designs on showgirl Rita Hayworth and enlists star of the show Fred Astaire to pretend to be Hayworth’s boyfriend to hide Benchley’s interest from his wife. But then WWII comes along and Astaire enlists and, for reasons I forget, masquerades as an officer in order to spend time with Hayworth, who he now fancies himself. Apparently, Astaire’s career had started to flag after he split he split with Ginger Rogers – why split? she was brilliant – but teaming up with Hayworth gave his career a boost, although he only made two films with her. He still claims her as his best partner, and she certainly kept up with him – but I can’t say Hayworth was better than Rogers, because Hayworth may have been an excellent dancer but Rogers was a perfect foil to Astaire. This is not a great film, and a pretty forgettable one from either star, each of whom has plenty of memorable ones in their oeuvres. One for fans.
Poor Cow, Ken Loach (1967, UK). My plan to work my way through Loach’s oeuvre is going to have to go on hold when I move to Sweden – unless I buy one of the several Ken Loach box sets currently available. The problem is, I watch his films and for each film I like, there’s another I’m not so keen on. So while I’m glad I watched Cathy Come Home, I didn’t really like it; but Poor Cow I did like quite a lot. Even though its story is broadly the same. It was Loach’s first feature film. The title refers to a young woman who is married to an habitual criminal. When he’s sent down for an inept jewellery shop robbery, she moves in with one of his mates (Terence Stamp, and the footage of him from this film was used in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey). But then Stamp gets sent down for twelve years after a violent robbery on an old woman, and the young woman returns to her husband. But she dreams of a future with Stamp. The film was very much made in a documentary style, with improvised dialogue, real locations, and non-actors in several roles. The London tenements in which the title character lives were a revelation – for all that the UK claims to be a leading nation the fact people lived in such poor conditions in its capital halfway through the twentieth century is disgusting. Fortunately, they were knocked down and social housing constructed in their place. And then Maggie and her goons sold those all off for a quick buck, and developers have flattened them and built luxury towers that sit empty because one-percenters are using them as tax dodges or for laundering money… Meanwhile, you have scumbag Tories trying push through a law making it acceptable for rental properties to not be fit for human habitation… Fuckers. Anyway, Poor Cow is one of the Loach films I thought good. Worth seeing.
What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (2014, New Zealand). There were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, unexpected in a MCU film, and though I’d liked his Hunt for the Wilderpeople (see here), I wasn’t sure I was on the same wavelength for his humour. And the first ten minutes or so of What We Do in the Shadows seemed to demonstrate as much… But then the central conceit started to come together, there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, and I found the film a lot funnier and more enjoyable than I’d expected. It’s a mockumentary about a household of vampires in present-day Wellington. Waititi himself plays the main character. There’s an ancient vampire who lives in the cellar and does not speak, a fourteenth-century Transylvanian played by Jemaine Clement, and a “much trendier” vampire who is “only” 183 years old. But then one of the group goes and turns a local man into a vampire, who had originally been intended as prey, and he tells all his mates he’s a vampire. Including Stu, his best mate. Who he introduces to the rest of the group, and they really like him. At several points, the vampires bump into a pack of werewolves, led by Rhys Darby, and I have to admit they had some of the best lines in the film – “We’re werewolves not swearwolves” had me giggling for a good ten minutes. Worth seeing.
Mortal Engines, Christian Rivers (2018, New Zealand). The book on which this is based has been around since 2001, and while I’ve known of it pretty much since it was published, I’ve never read it. Because it’s YA. I am in my fifties. I am not the target market for YA fiction. I wasn’t even back in 2001. But I knew of Mortal Engines, and I knew of its mobile cities. Which is about all this film has going for it. Because the plot is pretty much identical to the first Star Wars film. Even down to the X-Wing attack on the Death Star. London is a major predator city, but its chief scientist dreams of conquering Shan Guo (China), a rich land without mobile cities. Fortunately, as is the way of such things, a pair of hardy teens, well, early twenties, appear and thwart his plans. There’s the daughter of a scientist who opposed the villain, and the junior historian who initially foils the former’s attempt on the villain’s life, only to be ejected from London because he knows too much. And the two form a reluctant alliance in order to stop London’s plans to destroy Shan Guo’s Shield Wall… Much of the film is travelogue, and the pair move around the world, trying to reach allies. At one point, they’re captured by slavers and put up for sale. Why do so many sf novels – and films – feature slavery? Seriously. It’s vile and does not belong in any work of fiction that is not explicitly about it, historical or contemporary. There’s no commentary on slavery in Mortal Engines – the nearest it gets is implying the two heroes might be purchased by a butcher so he can make sausages out of them. Cannibalism is hardly fit for comic relief during a slave auction. It’s not like the world of the film is some sort of US post-apocalypse dystopia (yes, I know Reeve is British). A villain who pushes ahead with his plan, ignoring the human cost or obvious consequences is one thing; but it’s well past time sf stopped building worlds that feature slavery – and yes, I know I’m 18 years too late with this book (assuming the scene even appears in the book).
Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer (2018, USA). I know, I shouldn’t watch films by Bryan Singer – although by all accounts he was taken off this project fairly quickly and it was mostly shot by Dexter Fletcher. But at least I don’t plan to shortlist him for any fucking awards. As it is, Bohemian Rhapsody is, well, dull. And not very good. The only thing about it that impressed was its CGI reconstruction of the old Wembley Stadium (which had been around since 1923, which I hadn’t known). Rami Malek pulls off Freddie Mercury quite well, but all we know of Mercury is his public persona and that was pretty much a caricature. Seems a bit pointless to award an actor for playing a role that was pretty much an act. And then there’s the music. I probably know most of Queen’s songs but I don’t own a single album by them. They’re… okay. I can listen to them without cringing, but I wouldn’t spend money on them. Fortunately for the film, there’s plenty of the band’s music on display – because that’s all the band has going for it: Mercury aside, they’re not very interesting people. Unfortunately, the film makes some strange choices about chronology. It has the band upset at Mercury recording a solo album, when Roger Taylor had already recorded two and Brian May one by that point. It changes the timing on when Mercury told the band he had AIDS, which completely changes the impact of the revelation. And, by all accounts, it doesn’t do a good job of presenting Mercury’s relationships. It doesn’t seem to know if it’s supposed to be a biopic or a rock musical, which means it varies wildly in tone. Putting it on the Oscars shortlist is a travesty.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T, Roy Rowland (1953, USA). I remember seeing some of this film many years ago, I think when I was at school, back in the 1980s, but it may have been later, perhaps when I was at university. I don’t recall the details. I certainly knew of the film, and I knew it was bat-shit bonkers. So when I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, I had no choice but to watch it. And it proved so much more bonkers than I’d supposed, and so much better. The plot is simple: a young boy objects to his piano lessons – he is following a course by Dr Terwiliker – and meanwhile is trying to matchmake between his widowed mother and the local plumber. He has a dream in which he finds himself in a strange world where he and 499 other children – the 5000 fingers, you see – are forced to play an insanely long keyboard by dictator Dr Terwiliker. The sets were clearly designed by someone who was on acid, the script was written by Dr Seuss, and the actors play their roles with a wholesome earnestness that is pure 1950s Disney but completely out of place. And it’s a musical. It is fantastic. And Dr Terwiliker’s song, ‘Doe-Me-Doe Duds’, is near genius. Check out these lyrics:
I want my undulating undies with the maribou frills!
I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills!
I want my purple nylon girdle with the orange blossom buds
Cause I’m going doe-me-doe-ing in my doe-me-doe duds!
And the song finishes with:
So come and dress me in the blossoms of a million pink trees!
Come on and dress me up in liverwurst! and camembert cheese!
Come on and dress me up in pretzels, dress me up in bock beer suds! Cause I’m gooooo-ing
in my doe-me-doe duds!
I know most of the films I watch are blindingly obscure, and only of interest to a limited group of people, but occasionally I watch – or, at least, write about – popular films. Not always, it has to be said, approvingly. And there’s a glaring example in this post: Blade Runner 2049. There’s a tendency among genre fans to love movies because they’re respectful of genre, whether or not they’re good films. Throw in good visuals – or even ersatz art house visuals – and said fans are pretty much wetting themselves. If you judge a film by fan service, you’re doing it wrong. On the other hand, I do have a somewhat idiosyncratic taste in films. As is evidenced by my DVD collection…
Paradox Alice, Erika Dapkewicz (2012, USA) I forget where I saw mention of this, but the premise sounded intriguing. A routine flight to Europa to harvest ice returns to Earth, only to witness the planet being destroyed. The one female member of the four crew is murdered. A remaining member of the crew (now all male) then inexplicably transforms into a female. Which means there are now only two male crew-members left: an old sensible one, and a young nutjob who thinks he’s some sort of Waco messiah. And that last tells you as much as you need to know about this film. In other words, it was fucking awful. The CGI was shit, but never mind, it seemed to be doing its job… but then the three of them were left the only humans alive and the quality nosedived very quickly. The nutjob messiah character was played one-note, and the female character immediately started acting like a victim. And was then tortured and raped. I had thought the film was recent, but after watching it I was surprised it hadn’t been made forty years ago. The sexual politics were offensive and a generation old at least. Do yourself a favour: avoid.
Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve (2017, USA). This and Arrival, another Villeneuve film I did not like, have received much love from the genre community. The first might be partly due to the fact the film was an adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang; and, okay, Blade Runner 2049 is plainly a sequel to the much-loved Blade Runner from 1982, as the title clearly indicates, so that’s going to get it some love from the genre community straight off. Because when it comes to movies, the genre community – AKA fandom – has pretty poor taste, or rather, its critical faculties completely desert it. “Woo, Hollywood made a film of a book we like… Quick! Give it a Hugo!”. Which is not to say that only fandom has fallen for Villeneuve’s superficial charms. He has been lauded by the film community too. Blade Runner 2049, I will freely admit, looks gorgeous. But it is still a bad film. It is deeply misogynistic: only one female character survives to the end. It is needlessly violent. In the original, the only people killed by Deckard were replicants he had been authorised to “retire”. In this version, the protagonist kills far more people, and often for no good reason. There is one scene, which does not advance the plot, in which the protagonist’s vehicle crashes in an area outside the city and he has to kill a number of people who attack him. Because that’s what people do in the future obvs. They attack people who have car accidents. And, I don’t know, maybe they eat them. Then there’s Jared Leto’s character, Niander Wallace, who is clearly meant to be the new Tyrell, but Tyrell was proud of his accomplishments while Wallace is mostly contemptuous. The more I think about it, the more I think Blade Runner 2049 is a deeply offensive film, and I wonder what that says about twenty-first century science fiction and twenty-first cinema. Villeneuve is like Winding Refn, a director lauded for their visuals by critics who are happy to overlook their misogyny and violence. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. A good film is more than just pretty pictures.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Watiti (2016, New Zealand). I had never heard of Watiti until I watched Thor: Ragnarok. And then, having learnt who he was, I wondered about Disney’s wisdom in putting him in charge of a MCU film. But he pulled it off. More than that, he made probably the most entertaining MCU film so far. And since that film pleasantly surprised me, I decided to give some of his earlier work a go. It has been horribly mis-sold. I hate whimsical shit. I cannot stand the films of Wes Anderson. Someone has tried to sell Watiti as New Zealand’s answer to Anderson. For me, this is a massive turn-off. Fortunately, it is complete bollocks. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a straightforward drama told with a slightly sideways dead-pan comic point-of-view. It is, thankfully, not at all fucking whimsical. A kid in care is dumped on a well-meaning, but none too bright, couple on a smallholding outside the city. The kid tries to run away several times, but he’s overweight and knows nothing about the bush. Eventually, the wife’s kindness wins him over. The husband is a gruff type who doesn’t want him there. But then the wife dies unexpectedly, and the kid runs away because he doesn’t want to go back into care. The husband tracks him down, but injures himself in the process, so the two end up staying in the bush for weeks while he recovers. Meanwhile, everyone thinks the husband has kidnapped the kid… Sam Neill plays the husband, and he gives it his best, but his career tells against him – he’s played too many scientists and urbane types to convince as a taciturn bushman. The kid, in, I think, his first professional role, is really good. I think what makes the film is that all the characters are well-meaning but really dim. Often, they’re comically stupid. And that played well against the seriousness of the story. I’m told Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a bit of a Marmite film, and I generally find myself on the hating side of such films. But I really liked it. And it wasn’t at all whimsical, thank god.
Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, Paul Sng (2017, UK). Maggie’s great sell-off of council houses was the most financially successful of all the Tory policies. It brought in more money than any other sell-off. And in itself, it was no bad thing. Except. The social housing that was sold was never replaced. Sheffield is currently doing the same with its trees: cutting them down, but not always planting new ones. (They cut down two on my street… and replaced only one of them.) And that’s what happened to social housing in the UK. The number of council houses plummetted. So now we have people living on the street. And in London, land once occupied by social housing has been developed and turned into luxury apartments which the rich use as investments and never actually occupy. Empty flats should be taxed 90%. More. It is absolutely fucking disgusting that people are left homeless just so some one-percenter can park money in property. One story repeatedly told in this film, which should be watched by everyone, is that of people who had bought their council house/flat, but their estate was now being developed, so they were offered £150k for their home, but the market price of an equivalent property in the area was £600k or more. Much of the impetus for redevelopment comes from the poor condition of the estates, where maintenance has been neglected for decades. In some cases, the neglect is deliberate in order to justify a sell-off to a developer; in other cases, it’s the result of central government cutting back funding to local authorities. Tory central government, of course. They used council houses to pay a ton into the Treasury to offset the tax cuts they’d given their mates, to make up for the shrinking of the economy caused by policies such as Austerity… And yet the claim to be the party that’s good for business! On what planet? Dispossession mostly covers estates in London, but does also film in the Gorbals and at Red Road and other locations in Glasgow. I seem to remember it also covering Sheffield’s Hyde Park. This film should be require viewing in schools – although the scumbags at Eton and the like will probably think it’s a comedy. But that’s doesn’t matter because there are more of us, and we can vote them out of office. and then ensure that they are charged for their crimes.
Underwater Love, Shinji Imaoko (2011, Japan). This was a birthday present from David Tallerman. After mentioning that I’d loved The Lure (see here), he told me I’d probably like this too. And he was right. Although not as much as I loved The Lure. A woman who works in a fish factory and is engaged to the boss. But then she bumps into a kappa, a Japanese water sprite, sort of half-man half-turtle, who proves to be a past boyfriend who drowned when they were both seventeen. She sorts of befriends him – and there is some comedy around her trying to hide him from her fiancé – and through the kappa she meets other water sprites. Oh, and every now and again, they all break into song. It’s sort of eighties music, but not really – and I’m not sure if that’s because it’s Japanese… Comparisons with The Lure are, I’m afraid, inevitable – and not only because I watched the two within a short period of time. The Polish film is the more visual of the two, and, it must be said, the more musical. But Underwater Love is a romance, not horror, and so entirely different in tone. The protagonist in Underwater Love is, of course, a great deal more sympathetic – slightly ditzy, slightly harassed, but generally happy. The protagonists in The Lure are, er, carnivorous mermaids. And the more I think about it, the harder it is to compare the two films. Underwater Love was fun, if lightweight, and I’ve seen enough Japanese cinema to be reasonably familiar with its conventions. The comedy didn’t always works for me, the frank depictions of sex were a surprise but seemed to fit, and I can’t really complain: it was a good present.
The Mother and the Whore*, Jean Eustache (1973, France). This was the first feature film by Eustache, previously known for shorts and documentaries, and it is highly regarded – not just featuring on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but praised by many critics both inside and outside France. It is also 219 minutes long, and shot in black and white. It is about a self-obsessed twenty-something Parisian, his girlfriend, and a woman he meets with whom he has an affair. Much of the film takes place in cafés and bars, and consists of the man talking at women. Sometimes, there is even a conversation. I read the Wikipedia entry, and it sounded interesting. Not Nouvelle Vague, which I find a bit hit and miss, but very French. And it was clearly highly-regarded. But such films… sometimes it’s hard to see what their reputation rests upon. Over three hours of bullshit uttered by a young man trying to carry on affairs with two women? Maybe I missed something, maybe there’s more to this film than appeared on the screen. It felt… glib, and far too common a scenario. Especially in French cinema. And length is not always a sign of deeper exploration. I shall probably give it another go sometime, but I honestly could not understand why it was so praised. I like French cinema, I like a lot of Nouvelle Vague films (which, to be fair, this wasn’t), I even like some long films by French directors (well, mostly by Jacques Rivette…). I feel like I missed something with this film, but perhaps it just wasn’t for me. Ah well.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 902
I don’t seem to have been making much traction with the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list recently. True, there’s a film from the list – Alphaville – in this half-dozen, but it was a rewatch as I first saw the film many years ago.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, Alain Resnais (2012, France). It had never occurred to me the director of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour had made films into the twenty-first century, but after stumbling across Muriel (see here), I looked further, discovered Resnais’s last film was released in 2014… and added a bunch of those available to my rental list. And the first to be sent proved to his last-but-one film, Vous n’avez encore rien vu, with its dumb Bachman Turner Overdrive title. Happily, the title is the only dumb thing about it. A famous playwright invites a dozen or so actors with whom he has worked during his career to his funeral. The actors are all billed as themselves. On arrival at the late man’s house, they are sat in front of a screen and asked to watch a performance of the playwright’s most famous play, Eurydice, put on by a young theatre collective. And as the collective act out the play, so those at the wake begin to act out the parts they took in past celebrated stagings of the play. For some of these scenes, Resnais lays in CGI scenery, intended I think to represent the scenery of the play when those actors were in it. The play-within-a-play has been around for a long time – Shakespeare even used it in Hamlet – but making the cast of the main play complicit in the staging of the embedded play is a new twist. And it’s cleverly done. Resnais apparently had another person direct the version of Eurydice watched by the cast, so that it would be different in style to his own direction. Having only seen three films by Resnais prior to this one, the distinction was lost on me. But never mind. A good film, worth seeing.
Level Five, Chris Marker (1997, France). Marker these days is probably best known for La jetée, an experimental film from 1962 which was freely adapted as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys in 1995. Marker actually made a shitload of films, most of them short and most of them experimental. Level Five is feature-length, at 106 minutes, but very much experimental. It has a single cast member, Catherine Belkhodja, who views the world through a variety of computer screens. The Wikipedia plot summary refers to these last as “virtual reality”, but they’re not. And even for 1997, the computer graphics are crude. If anything, they remind me a little of Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World from 1991, which I first saw in 1992 or 1993 and thought a good presentation of the future at the time. Viewed from the twenty-first century, it’s not, of course. And Level Five feels somewhat similar in that regard. It’s not just the software or the hardware on display, but also the geopolitics, the social concerns… For all that it’s trying to be prophetic – deliberately so, it makes a feature of its analyses – Level Five seems to miss far more often than it hits. And having the film consist solely of either close-ups on Belkhodja or the computer graphics she is either watching or discussing doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama. I suspect this film needed another watch or two, but unfortunately it wasa rental and it’s gone back. Ah well.
McLintock!, Andrew V McLaglen (1963, USA). Yes, that really is John Wayne spanking Maureen O’Hara on the cover art. And while art like that, and the offensive tagline, “He tamed the Wild West… but could he tame her?” might have been acceptable in 1963 (in some parts of society), they are no longer (Presidents Club notwithstanding). Even worse, a quick google shows that the film posters of the time used the same image, along with equally offensive taglines like “He’s a tender loving guy!” and “Wallops the daylight out of every Western you’ve ever seen!”. The sad thing is, is that for half of its length, McLintock! is actually an amusing comedy Western. McLintock! was a Wayne project, the first of many movies he used to promote his conservative Republicans values – although present-day Republicans may consider those values dangerously liberal in some respects. Wayne developed the script, he hand-picked the director, one of his sons played the young male lead, another son produced, and he insisted on a supporting role for Yvonne De Carlo because her husband had been injured filming How The West Was Won. The film is set in the town of McLintock, named for Wayne’s character, a local cattle baron, who owns pretty much everything in sight. His wife, Maureen O’Hara, left him two years earlier to live in New York, but now she is back – because their daughter, Stefanie Powers, is about to return from college. Meanwhile, homesteaders have arrived in McLintock, ready to settle land they’ve been given on nearby Mesa Verde. The US government has also released the chiefs of the local Comanche tribe, only for a locally-held commission to tell the tribe they must leave their land. All this is good drama, and Wayne’s character is even-handed, if overly paternalistic, and keen to see everyone is treated equally, Comanche or homesteader. But not the women. Twice in McLintock! women are spanked using coal scuttles, and on both occasions such disciplining is seen as both normal and required. In fact, Wayne and O’Hara are at loggerheads for much of the film, until he spanks her. And then she turns all loving and decides not to return to New York. Bah.
Alphaville*, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). Although I’d seen ten of the thirteen films in this collection before, for some reason I saved Alphaville to watch last – despite working my way through the others chronologically. I think perhaps it was because I’d last seen it nearly a decade ago and perhaps felt I’d not appreciated it as much as I should have done… I don’t know. But I do know, however, that I liked it a great deal more this time. Eddie Constantine plays a secret agent posing as a jurnalist who visits Alphaville from the “Outer Countries”. It takes a while before his purpose there is clear, but he has been sent to bring back Professor Nosferatu, now known as Professor von Braun, the inventor of Alphaville and the Alpha-60 computer which rules it (it was not unusual in 1950s and early 1960s sf to assign AI-like capabilities to very large computers). Constantine meets up with Anna Karenina, von Braun’s daughter, and she gives him entry to the sections of Alphaville society his (fake) journalistic credentials cannot provide. None of Alphaville is filmed on sets. Godard made no effort to build a future city – and Alphaville‘s universe is implied to be galactic and not just planetary. Contemporary Paris provides the backdrop. At the time, some of the buildings used may have appeared futuristic, but now they appear mostly otherworldly, which has more or less the same effect. Some parts of the film haven’t aged so well. The seductresses, for example. Or the execution scene in the swimming pool with the sycnchronised swimmers. But there’s a lot that remains impressive. I especially liked a tracking shot following Constantine and Karenina as they travelled down in a lift, which continued in one take from them entering the lift cabin until they exited the hotel. An excellent film.
Tartuffe, FW Murnau (1925, Germany). I don’t know how many silent films I’ve watched, but I learn something new about cinematic narrative each time I watch one. I suppose I expected silent dramas to be completely different to films with sound, as if the use of intertitles laid a constraint on cinematic narrative which sound had removed from movie-making. And perhaps that’s true to some extent. But it didn’t mean silent cinema was completely unadventurous narratively. As Tartuffe demonstrates. It opens with a venal housekeeper gaslighting her employer so that he leaves his fortune to her and not to his actor grandson. Which the grandson learns on a visit to his grandfather. After being thrown out of the house, the grandson addresses the camera and insists he is not giving up. He returns to the house disguised as an impresario and puts on a private cinema screening for his grandfather and the housekeeper of… Tartuffe, the play by Molière. It’s a simplified version of the play, but the cut-down story is more than adequate to make the grandson’s point. In the film-within-a-film (explicitly so, unlike the Resnais above), Orgon returns from a trip and brings with him a religious man whom he greatly admires: Tartuffe. In fact, he admires him so much he changes every aspect of his life to accommodate Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife, Elmire, however, suspects Tartuffe is a fraud, and sets out to entrap him by seducing him. And she succeeds… I’ve seen several of Murnau’s films, and liked them, so this box set of his early works was a good buy. And a bargain too, as it was cheaper than the individual versions of the films in it.
Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi (2017, USA). I am not a fan of superhero movies. The ones everyone praises, I generally think are terrible. I mean, I’d always liked the Guardians of the Galaxy since first reading them in an Marvel anthology comic back in the 1970s, but the movie wasn’t even based on those Guardians of the Galaxy but a later reboot, and, for all its hype, it was pants. And the sequel was worse. So I had pretty low expectations for Thor: Ragnarok, especially given how forgettable the two previous Thor films were… And yes, I was aware Thor: Ragnarok had been directed by Taika Waititi, a leftfield choice for a MCU film, but I wasn’t convinced the addition of Kiwi humour to MCU bombast would work. But. I was actually entertained. Which was unexpected. Thor: Ragnarok is not a great film by any means, and it’s not entirely sure what it should have been. You have the pure Kirby-vision of the Asgard sections, but the part set on Sakaar feels more like a reject from a Star wars prequel. But the film has a number of good lines and some entertaining comic set-pieces. For example, when Thor is about to leave Dr Strange’s mansion and puts out his hand for Mjolnir and you hear the sound of glass breaking, I laughed out loud. I wasn’t convinced Waititi’s rock-creature deadpan humour worked all the time, but Cate Blanchett did make an excellent villain. I could live without most of the plot, and the final battle on Bifrost went on far too long. I’d certainly describe Thor: Ragnarok as one of the better films in the MCU, although that’s not a hard bar to clear. Perhaps its success might lead Disney to experiment a little more with who they choose to direct their films… What am I thinking? It’s Disney. They’re as corporate as you can get. They’ll either flog their new formula to death, or strangle whatever creativity their chosen director tries to put into their film…
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895