A Criterion Channel journey, films #41-50

This is the fifth entry in my series of thumbnail sketches of films I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel streaming service, since starting a subscription in September 2021. This set of 10 films was watched from late October to early November of 2021. Looking back, I can see that from mid-October till December, I was on a predominantly English-language viewing streak on Criterion, and therefore, all except one of the ten films in today’s list were made in the USA.

Chan is Missing (1982): This was Chinese-American auteur Wayne Wang‘s first independently directed feature film, having co-directed a largely forgotten crime drama seven years earlier. Chan is Missing heralded the arrival of a unique voice representing the Chinese disapora in the US. It is technically a whodunnit, chronicling the efforts of Jo, a taxi driver from San Francisco, who enlists the help of his nephew to search through Chinatown for his friend, Chan, who has gone missing with some of Jo’s money. Wang uses this plot device to showcase the lifestyles and mindset of Chinese Americans, particularly their struggles with identity and racism in their adopted home. It was probably the first time that Asian Americans were not represented on screen as gangsters or as sidekicks to a white protagonist. I personally found the film only mildly entertaining, but it is an important piece of American indie history and therefore worth the investment of 76 minutes. Wang went on to greater mainstream success with his adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in 1993, although his forays into Hollywood rom-com territory in the 2000’s with films like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday received mixed reviews.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932): Veteran director Mervyn LeRoy scored one of his earliest critical and commercial hits with this heartbreaking drama, featuring five-time Oscar nominee Paul Muni, as a decorated soldier-turned-civilian James Allen, whose life is turned upside down due to one unguarded moment. The film is based on a memoir published by Robert Elliot Burns, although ironically Burns’ true life story had a happier ending than the movie did. The memoir and the film are widely credited with mobilizing public opinion against “chain gangs”, and leading to their eventual phasing out over the following two decades. Muni is convincing as an earnest, well-meaning man, who just can’t catch a break; his resignation to his fate at the end of the film is chilling. Director LeRoy went on to a distinguished career, including being the producer (and uncredited director) on The Wizard of Oz, directing the 1949 adaptation of Little Women (starring Janet Leigh and a teenage Elizabeth Taylor), and the 1951 biblical epic Quo Vadis.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967): One of the most extraordinary films I have seen in recent times, this tour de force from director John Huston, features the powerhouse pairing of Marlon Brando as Major Penderton, and Elizabeth Taylor as his wife Leonora. This sordid drama, which takes place on a US Army Post, is notable for its one-of-a-kind post-production process that rendered the finished film in a tint of gold. The breathtakingly beautiful visuals are in stark contrast to the ugly behaviour of the two protagonists, whose relationship is marked by repressed desires, infidelity and emotional abuse. The film bears an uncanny thematic similarity to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the Oscar darling from the previous year. In both films, Elizabeth Taylor’s character is married to a man whom she compares unfavorably with her own powerful/influential father, with her contempt for her husband’s lack of ambition and career progression leading to bitterness, vitriol and emotional emasculation. The story is built around a small cast of characters, all flawed or emotionally damaged in their own way; of particular note is the performance by Filipino actor Zorro David as the effeminate houseboy Anacleto, who appears to be the only person truly comfortable in his own skin, and in control of his destiny. I was disappointed to read that the film was poorly received by critics and audiences upon release; in fact, I would highly recommend it for fans of the actors and the director. Interestingly, Montgomery Clift was the original choice to play Major Penderton, but died before production began. As much as I’m a fan of Clift, I personally think Brando did great justice to the role and can’t imagine anyone else having played it.

(from centre to right) Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Brian Keith in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

Freud (1962): Speaking of Montgomery Clift, he plays the titular role in this biopic that chronicles Sigmund Freud’s controversial early years, his use of hypnotism as a diagnostic tool, and his relationships with fellow doctors and patients. This film was directed by John Huston five years before Reflections in a Golden Eye, and coincidentally, covers the same territory of repressed sexuality, although from a medical perspective. I found the film fascinating, for its chronicle of the debates linking sexual desires and mental health. It’s an intense, somewhat depressing drama, appropriately shot in B&W by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. It was the last film released during Clift’s lifetime (one more came out posthumously in 1966) and followed up his noteworthy performances in The Misfits and Judgment at Nuremberg, all of which ironically came just as his career was winding down due to a reputation as a difficult actor (partly brought on by substance abuse following injuries suffered in a horrific car crash in 1956).

The Secret of NIMH (1982): Until the 90’s when Dreamworks, Sony and other studios entered the feature animation fray, Disney was as synonymous with animation as Google is with Search today. There was a brief period in the 80’s however, when ex-Disney animator Don Bluth independently directed four highly acclaimed animation films, two of them (An American Tail and The Land Before Time) in association with Steven Spielberg. The Secret of NIMH was the first of Bluth’s films and provided a darker alternative to Disney assembly line fare (which itself ran dry around this time, before its own resurrection in the late 80’s with The Little Mermaid). Based on the award-winning 1971 children’s scifi/fantasy novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, it featured the voice talents of several respected stage and film actors, including John Carradine, Derek Jacobi, Peter Strauss and Dom DeLuise. A gripping story and a must-watch for animation aficionados, who would appreciate the “depth” of it’s 2D traditional cell animation.

Irma Vep (1996): This French arthouse film has become a cult classic over the years, to the point that it has spawned a TV miniseries this year, created by Olivier Assayas, who directed the original. The original helped to launch the international career of Hong Kong martial arts star Maggie Cheung, who actually plays the role of a Hong Kong martial arts star named Maggie. Irma Vep chronicles the ill-fated attempts of a somewhat incompetent French director (played by beloved acting legend Jean-Pierre Léaud) to direct a remake of the classic French thriller serial film Les Vampires, the name being a reference to an underground criminal gang. I actually didn’t find the film to be particularly entertaining, and I suspect its popularity was mainly due to the prospect of seeing Maggie Cheung in a black latex catsuit! Assayas has directed several well-regarded films in recent years such as Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper and Non-Fiction, but personal favourite is his three-part miniseries, Carlos (which I reviewed in 2012) , starring Edgar Ramirez.

Wild River (1960): This film was an unexpected find, since I had never heard of it before, being one of director Elia Kazan‘s lesser known films. Montgomery Clift delivers a low-key, compassionate performance as Chuck Glover, a government agent responsible for acquiring land for the Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric project. The narrative centers around a battle of wills between Glover and Ella Garth, a feisty old woman who lives on an island on the Tennessee River, with her extended family and Black farm hands, and who is determined not to sell to the TVA. Actress Lee Remick plays Ella Garth’s widowed granddaughter, the only person in the family with an interest in getting off the island, but too reserved to speak her mind. This is a typical “outsider vs. the village” narrative and follows established story beats, but nevertheless is an engaging film, on account of the intense performances, particularly from Jo Van Fleet as Ella Garth.

No Way Out (1950): This was the first of three consecutive films I watched, starring Richard Widmark, one of the finest character actors of the 50’s and 60’s. It is also notable as Sidney Poitier‘s debut film and fittingly showcases a hard-hitting depiction of racial hatred. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, but lost out to himself, when his Oscar juggernaut All About Eve swept up multiple awards that year. Poitier plays a young Black doctor who has to treat two brothers who are brought into a prison hospital ward, after they were apprehended during an attempted robbery. This set up leads to a sequence of events that unleashes the pent-up racial tensions in the city. Widmark as absolutely believable as the bigoted, petty criminal, who cannot bear to even be touched by an African-American doctor. This landmark film also features two African-American acting giants and civil rights activists, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, in early uncredited roles. The early 50’s was a period of extraordinary success for director Mankiewicz, who followed up this film with 5 Fingers (best Picture nominee), Julius Caesar (best Picture nominee) and The Barefoot Contessa (best Screenplay nominee).

Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark in No Way Out (1950)

Pickup on South Street (1953): This extraordinary Cold War spy film with film noir undertones features a crackling performance by Richard Widmark, as pickpocket Skip McCoy. McCoy steals a women’s wallet on a crowded subway train and inadvertently gets caught up in an international espionage conspiracy. The plot is quite complex with plenty of twists, turns and double crossing involved, so one has to pay close attention. Widmark delivers the sort of raw, edgy performance that he became famous for, and veteran actress Thelma Ritter plays a key role as a police informant who tries to play both sides. Director and screenwriter Samuel Fuller always operated on the edge of mainstream fare and was well known for depicting the more violent and seedier aspects of life, which made him a favourite of French New Wave directors in the 60’s.

Panic in the Streets (1950): This thriller from Elia Kazan hasn’t aged one bit and is perhaps even more relatable today in the Covid era. Richard Widmark plays Clinton Reed, a US Public Health Service officer in New Orleans. After discovering pneumonic plague in the blood of a murder victim found near the docks, Reed has to convince a skeptical city bureaucracy that a pandemic is imminent unless they can trace everyone who came in touch with the victim and have them inoculated. And so begins a race against time, of the sort we have seen in similarly themed modern day thrillers like Outbreak and Contagion. The cast includes likeable character actor Paul Douglas, celebrated stage actor Zero Mostel, and Jack Palance in his screen debut as a gangster named Blackie. The city of New Orleans is another key character – the streets, back alleys and docks through which Clinton Reed chases down the source of the infection, add to the atmosphere and texture of the story. Overall, this is an immensely gripping and watchable film, and highly recommended. The film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay and garnered Kazan a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival. Thereafter, Kazan went from strength to strength, directing the classics A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront and East of Eden over a five-year period.

Here are the links to the previous thumbnails: #1-10, #11-20, #21-30 and #31-40.

Old favourites release new music in 2021: Part 2

Following on from Part 1, here’s the second set of new 2021 releases by my favourite rock and metal artists. These are six albums from Iron Maiden, Yes, Dream Theater, Mastodon and Jerry Cantrell and Black Label Society.

Iron MaidenSenjutsu (3rd Sep): Veteran British heavy metal outfit Iron Maiden released their seventeenth studio album to widespread acclaim last September. Their trademark sound is on full display – the guitar attack from Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers, Steve Harris‘ galloping bass and Nicko McBrain‘s thunderous drums. It’s certainly no mean feat for these musicians to maintain this level of technical prowess while in their 60’s; even Bruce Dickinson hits his familiar high notes on most songs. The double album clocks in at 82 minutes, with most songs running at 6 minutes or longer. The best are the four long ones written by bassist Steve Harris, 9-12 minutes long: Lost in a Lost World takes a couple of minutes to get going before the chugging rhythm guitars step in to deliver a really propulsive middle section, eventually ending with an anthemic chorus towards the end; the 12-minute-long Parchment kicks off with a majestic guitar intro which instantly establishes it as a contender for a best-of collection; Death of the Celts has the most varied vocals of the album, alternating between rhythmic and soaring, and is interspersed by long instrumental sections containing familiar Maiden guitar riffs and hooks; and the closing track Hell on Earth carries a peppy and hummable riff that belies its dark subject matter. The remaining tracks didn’t really capture my imagination, but with more than 40 minutes of great music, there’s no reason to complain!

YesThe Quest (1st Oct): This is the seminal prog-rock group’s twenty-second studio album, and the first without any of their founding members (bassist Chris Squire having passed away in 2015). It’s still a legitimate Yes album, as the personnel include guitarist Steve Howe, who has played on all their classic albums of the 70’s, and keyboardist Geoff Downes, who kicked off the band’s post-Anderson/Wakeman era with the 1980 album Drama (and perhaps better known as a member of The Buggles who had the 1979 hit, Video Killed the Radio Star). On The Quest, the band retain their trademark vocal harmonies led by the outstanding Jon Davison, delivering a mellow album of beauty and variety. The opening track, The Ice Bridge, sounds like one of their classic AOR songs, with an endearing string-section riff thrown in (reminiscent of 70’s disco tracks!). The FAMES Studio Orchestra from North Macedonia brings a cinematic lushness to Dare to Know, with its horns and strings sections. Future Memories is a hypnotic and poetic track enlivened by Steve Howe’s Fender Stringmaster steel guitar. The magical Music to My Ears, alternates between a soothing, lilting verse and a fast-paced chorus. A Living Island has a bit of everything – acoustic guitars, Jon Davison’s vocals channeling Jon Anderson’s 70’s sound, and lead guitar solos, pitter-patter drumming (of the sort I loved in Kate Bush‘s 2005 track, Somewhere in Between). All three songs on Disc 2 are exceptional – the beautiful Sister Sleeping Soul (featuring a Portuguese 12-string guitar), the Beatles tribute song Mystery Tour and the incongruously cheerful eco-awareness song Damaged World (great vocal combo from Davison and Howe). This is an album that keeps getting better with repeated listening.

Dream TheaterA View from the Top of the World (22nd Oct): The prolific, long-lived, much-loved and highly respected American prog-metal band hit pay dirt with their 15th studio album, as it secured their first ever Grammy win for the 9-minute-long epic, The Alien. As much affection as I have for this band, I have to admit that I haven’t fallen in love with a full album since 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. On average, I have ended up liking only a couple of songs each on their subsequent 8 albums, and this one is no different. This time, it’s Transcending Time, which gives off strong Rush vibes (specifically, Red Barchetta) that I find irresistible. Awaken the Master is also quite good, with it’s sinister and dramatic syncopation between drums and rhythm guitar. The album closes with the 20-minute title track structured as a 3-part suite, which I found a bit generic, and which I think, is a good description for the entire disc.

MastodonHushed and Grim (29th Oct): I’ve covered this band recently as part of my series on favourite concept albums. This album is not a concept album and therefore wasn’t included in that post, but has emerged as their most accomplished work. A double-album clocking in at a combined length of 86 minutes, it is chock-full of fantastic tracks such as Sickle and Peace, More Than I Could Chew and Teardrinker from Disc One, and Peace and Tranquility, Gobblers of Dregs and Gigantium from Disc Two. The band’s sound has certainly evolved over their 8 studio albums, and for a first-time listener, I would recommend this album to start with. Sickle and Peace starts off like a song from the band America, and Teardrinker is as radio-friendly a song as they have ever released (with Octopus Has No Friends from The Hunter coming close).

Jerry Cantrell Brighten (29th Oct): Given that Jerry Cantrell is the guitarist, co-vocalist and main songwriter for 90’s grunge powerhouse Alice in Chains, it’s not surprising that his solo efforts have had a very similar sound. This continues to be the case with his third solo album, Brighten. Although that should have appealed to me as an Alice in Chains fan, it felt rather like listening to a sonic facsimile – sounds the same, but missing something. There are a couple of exceptions – Had to Know sounds like vintage AIC and the easy-going Dismembered is tinged with Southern Rock. Nobody Breaks You is also listenable. I think it’s pretty clear that I don’t have that much to say about the album, except that it could play as background music in a crowded bar.

Black Label SocietyDoom Crew Inc. (26th Nov): Former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde formed BLS (named after his favourite brand of whiskey) in 1999, with Doom Crew Inc. being the band’s 11th studio album. It’s the first one I’ve listened to since album #4, The Blessed Hellride from 2003. Looking like a viking god, Wylde personifies heavy metal and hasn’t compromised his look or sound over the years. The flip side of that is they haven’t evolved that much musically, still sounding a lot like a Black Sabbath tribute band. Of course, that’s not such a bad thing, and if you want to a Sabbath clone, then Ruins is the go-to song, for it’s perfect replication of Ozzy’s vocals and Tony Iommi‘s chugging guitars. On the other hand, when the band goes for variety, it reaps dividends, as in the case of Forsaken, which sounds a lot like a cross between Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Likewise, my top track in the album is the “macho ballad” Forever and A Day, with such a different vocal sound, that I’m not even sure it’s Zakk Wylde singing.

That concludes my snapshot of 12 new albums released by veteran rock and metal bands in 2021. As I mentioned at the end of part 1, I really enjoyed listening and re-listening to these albums over the past few weeks as I was writing these posts. 2022 is already looking promising, with releases from Jethro Tull, Steve Vai, Scorpions, Sabaton, and Coheed & Cambria, already released or on the horizon.

Old favourites release new music in 2021: Part 1

In November 2020, I had published a two part post (Parts 1 and 2) about new studio albums from some of my favourite rock, hard rock and metal artists. The ensuing period of Covid-imposed lockdown time has given musicians plenty of time to write and record new music, and there was a similar bounty of riches in 2021. However, I had less time to listen to new music in 2021, and in fact, I discovered some of the late-2021 releases only a few weeks or days ago, hence the lateness of this 2021 recap. Given the limited listening time I had last year, I am covering hard rock/metal releases, and leaving out the lighter stuff. Here, in Part 1, I will cover new albums from Transatlantic, Liquid Tension Experiment, Gojira, Mammoth WVH, Styx and The Neal Morse Band.

TransatlanticThe Absolute Universe (5th Feb): Transatlantic is an international prog-rock band comprising two Americans (Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy), one Swede (Roine Stolt) and one Englishman (Peter Trewavas). I had listened to their debut album, SMPT:e (the initials of the band members’ surnames, with the “e” added on as a fun reference to the SMPTE timecode used in video recording), and had admired their technical proficiency. That was in 2000, and this is their fifth studio album, which is quite an achievement, considering these guys are all members of other bands with significant musical output. The Absolute Universe is a concept album which has been released in three formats, a 90-minute extended version titled Forevermore, a 64-minute abridged version titled The Breath of Life, and the deluxe package combining both. Their sound sits at the virtuoso end of the prog-rock spectrum, with long, technically complex instrumental solos, exemplified by the 8-minute opening track, Overture. In keeping with the concept album format, the songs all bleed into each other, so it’s like listening one continuous song. I can’t say that I really enjoyed the album, there were no catchy hooks, or vocal harmonies to make the songs memorable. As was the case with SMPT:e, I certainly admired their musicianship, but probably not an album I will be returning to.

Liquid Tension ExperimentLiquid Tension Experiment 3 (16th Apr): Twenty two years after their last studio release, comes a truly awesome new album from this prog-metal supergroup, comprising two current (guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess) and one former (drummer Mike Portnoy) member of Dream Theater plus Chapman Stick virtuoso Tony Levin. For fans of Dream Theater, getting hold of this album is a no-brainer, as it carries a very similar sound. The version of the album I listened to on Spotify is the Deluxe Edition, which has five additional tracks in a “bonus disc” titled A Night at the Improv. Unlike most bonus sections, which contain material that wasn’t the first choice for the main album, everything here is a standout. This amazing, 2-hour-long album just grows on me with each listening. In the main disc, my favourite tracks are Beating the Odds, Liquid Evolution, Shades of Hope and the 13-minute opus Key to the Imagination, which I loved because of its eastern rhythms. Four of the five tracks in the bonus section are over 10 minutes and have a relaxed pace; Blink of an Eye and Solid Resolution Theory carry over the Dream Theater sound of the other tracks, while Your Beard is Good is a throwback with guitar riffs reminiscent of Wishbone Ash and some mellotron-like keyboard sounds, that could have come from Ray Manzarek of The Doors.

GojiraFortitude (30th Apr): Spotify tells me that Gojira was my most listened-to artist of 2021…and with good reason! This incredibly inventive album from the French heavy metal band shows just how sophisticated their sound has now become. The current line-up have been together since they changed their name from Godzilla in 2001 and their seventh studio album is their best yet, building on the critical acclaim of 2016’s Grammy-nominated Magma. This time around, the band adds elements of Pantera-style groove-metal to their foundational thrash metal sound. On the outstanding eco-protest track, Amazonia, they have incorporated the jaw harp to create a distinctive earthy rhythm; the song garnered them a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. The most radio-friendly tune on the album is Another World, which was also the lead single. Frankly, if I start listing my favourite songs, I will end up naming almost every one; Born for One Thing, Hold On, New Found, Into the Storm, The Trails – each have a memorable riff, hook or vocal delivery style that elevate them beyond standard rock/metal songs. I strongly recommend heavy metal fans to start with this album and work their way through the band’s back catalogue, particularly Magma, From Mars to Sirius (2005) and The Link (2003).

Mammoth WVHMammoth WVH (11th Jun): Legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen died of cancer in October 2020. His son Wolfgang released the song, Distance, shortly afterwards in memory of his father. Six months later, the song was part of his debut album Mammoth WVH (referencing the original name of the band Van Halen and of course, Wolfgang’s initials). Although the album artist is listed also as Mammoth WVH (implying it’s a band), it’s actually all Wolfgang Van Halen – vocals, lead and rhythm guitars, bass, drums and keyboards! Given his pedigree, it is inevitable that the Van Halen band sound carries over into this album. The songs are all accessible, commercial and radio-friendly, each clocking in at 3-4 minutes. My three favourite tracks are Mammoth, Think it Over and Stone. Although this first effort doesn’t push any boundaries, I’m curious to see what this talented musician will produce in the coming years.

StyxCrash of the Crown (18th Jun): The seventeenth studio album from the 70’s stadium rock icons comes nearly 50 years after the band’s formation. Co-founder James Young is still going strong, as is Tommy Shaw, whose entry as vocalist/guitarist in the late 70’s led to their biggest successes. The familiar rock-opera-style vocal harmonization hits you right from the get-go with the ultra-short intro track The Fight of Our Lives and then settles into a series of snappy songs, adding to a brisk (by today’s standards) 43-minute album. Lawrence Gowan‘s keyboards and Todd Sucherman‘s drums both get significant space on the album. I can’t say any of the songs stood out for me, but put together, the album is a great package that you can play to just enjoy “that Styx sound”; having said that, the title track does sound a lot like a Queen song!

The Neal Morse BandInnocence & Danger (27th Aug): This is the only band in the list that I hadn’t listened to previously, but narrowly qualifies as an “old favourite”, as two of the band members, Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, featured in Transatlantic, whose new album kicked off this post. The Neal Morse Band has a more conventional, commercial sound compared to Transatlantic, although Innocence & Danger does have two prog-rock epics – Not Afraid Pt. 2 is 20 minutes long and Beyond the Years is 31 minutes! But to balance these long, intricately structured prog-rock tracks (including a cover of Bridge Over Troubled Waters), there are shorter, highly accessible, conventional rock tracks. Four of the five band members sing, and this creates some great vocal harmonies; on the opening track Do It All Again, Neal Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer share lead vocal duties, with each one tackling a different section of the song. My favourite song, Bird on a Wire, also has the same three vocalists and is built around an anthemic keyboard riff from Bill Hubauer. Place in the Sun has a reggae-tinged intro and Another Story to Tell sounds like something out of a Billy Joel album. I have to admit, I had no idea how prolific Neal Morse is; he has a discography of more than 40 studio albums, covering his stints with prog-rock bands Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic and Flying Colors, as well as various solo efforts including nine Christian worship albums.

I had a lot of fun listening to all this new music. In Part 2, I will cover 2021 album releases from Iron Maiden, Yes, Dream Theater, Mastodon, Jerry Cantrell and Black Label Society.

A Criterion Channel journey, films #31-40

In the fourth part of my series of thumbnail sketches of films I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel streaming service, I cover 10 films I watched in the second half of October 2021. Whereas the earlier groups of 10 featured a varied mix of American classics and international arthouse films, this particular set were all English language films (nine American and one British production).

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946): This film caught my eye on the Criterion watch list, because it was billed as Kirk Douglas’ acting debut. The noir-drama hybrid kicks off with a dark backstory and then skips forward nearly two decades into a plot involving greed, blackmail and murder. It’s primarily an acting vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck who plays the dark-hearted, ambitious Martha Ivers. Kirk Douglas as her weakling husband, Van Heflin as her childhood friend and Lizbeth Scott form the other three points of a quasi love quadrangle. There aren’t any pleasant characters in the film, so I can’t say that I “liked” watching it, but it’s definitely an engrossing film, beautifully shot by Victor Milner and considered an important entry in the film noir pantheon. Director Lewis Milestone, is perhaps best known for winning an Oscar for the 1930 anti-war drama, All Quiet on the Western Front, and in the 1960s, he directed the original Ocean’s 11 and Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando.

Kirk Douglas and Barbara Stanwyck are an ill-matched husband and wife in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

The Long Voyage Home (1940): A rare John Ford effort that stars John Wayne, but isn’t a Western (the other notable one being The Quiet Man), this bittersweet drama chronicles the lives of sailors on-board a merchant ship in the midst of World War II. Fans of John Ford will recognize his trusted cohort of character actors (informally referred to as the John Ford Stock Company) who make recurring appearances in a number of his films – Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Arthur Shields – who fill up the screen with their banter and antics. In fact, although Wayne receives top billing, he plays a supporting role in the film as the Swedish sailor Ole, a genial young man of few words. The sailors are shown as a brotherhood, who are deeply committed to each other, and their shipboard tasks, although they frequently argue and get into trouble with their captain. Frankly, they behave like a bunch of over-grown, but lovable children. It’s a relatively lightweight entry from John Ford, elevated by outstanding B&W cinematography by Gregg Toland, who a year later would capture the imagination of filmmakers around the world with his deep-focus cinematography on Citizen Kane.

The Brotherhood (1968): Paramount Pictures released this mafia drama that bombed at the box office and gave it an allergy to the genre, before The Godfather righted the scales four years later. The Brotherhood kicks off in Palermo, Sicily where American mafia boss Frank Ginetta (Kirk Douglas) and his wife are living in exile, under heavy guard, in his ancestral family village. The story then flashes back to explain how Ginetta, one of the top capos of the New York City mafia, fell from grace. Douglas is a truly remarkable actor, who can get into the skin of any character he plays…an extraordinary achievement for an actor who could have just relied on his rugged good looks. An early scene shows him at his gracious best during his younger brother’s wedding, charming the guests and dancing with the bride. Everything seems perfect in Ginetta’s life, but soon his headstrong approach puts him at odds with his own brother and the rest of the mafiosi. Director Martin Ritt was known for his sensitive portrayal of iconoclasts and loners (Paul Newman in Hud, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Sally Field in Norma Rae), so one can understand why this story must have appealed to him.

Hold Your Man (1933): The third of six films pairing Clarke Gable with Jean Harlow, Hold Your Man is a breezy, comedy-drama typical of its time, featuring fast-talking, morally dubious protagonists, who end up having hearts of gold. The by-the-numbers plot was not designed to tax the brain cells, and six months after watching it, I honestly can’t remember much of the storyline. Fortunately, at just 87 minutes running time, it didn’t take up much of my time either. The film was one of director Sam Wood’s early efforts before he went on to fame directing the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, and then Oscar-worthy material like Goodbye, Mr. Chips and For Whom The Bell Tolls.

The Dead (1987): One of the most satisfying films I’ve watched in recent years, The Dead was released posthumously after director John Huston‘s death in 1987. It was an international co-production involving UK’s Channel 4 and other companies. A large part of the film’s 83-minute runtime is set at an annual Epiphany dinner hosted by the three Morkan sisters – Kate, Julia and Mary Jane. Guests including family, friends and students of Mary Jane (who is a music teacher) arrive, mingle, converse, sing, dance, play music, eat, drink, laugh and argue. There is no plot as such, just a nostalgic peek into the lifestyle, culture and conversations of the upper middle class at the turn of the 20th century. The dinner culminates with a vote of thanks given by the sisters’ nephew Gabriel (a subtle performance by Irish acting great Donal McCann), the entire sequence bringing tears to my eyes. The last act represents a significant downshift in pacing and tone – Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Huston’s daughter Anjelica) having returned to their residence, have a heart-felt conversation about life and love and death, an incongruous end to a high-spirited evening. This film is a truly remarkable epitaph to John Huston’s storied five-decade-long career, which encompasses all-time classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Moby Dick, The Misfits and The Man Who Would Be King.

Friends and family raise a toast to their hosts in the heart-warming Irish drama, The Dead (1987)

A Walk With Love and Death (1969): After watching Angelica Huston in The Dead, I jumped back in time to watch her debut film, also directed by her father. A historical romance and adventure drama, set during the 14th century Jacquerie uprising in northern France, Ms. Huston plays a young noblewoman who while on the run from armed peasants, crosses paths with a peace-loving student from Paris, who is journeying up to the coast. As both are caught up in the swirling violence of the revolt, they fall in love with each other and try their best to find peace and safety. This film is frequently overlooked during discussions of both father and daughter’s work. By today’s standards, it is too slow-paced to qualify as an adventure film and a bit tame for a romance. An interesting piece of trivia is the fact that Huston’s co-star in the film, Assi Dayan, was the son of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs in the 70’s (famous for his distinctive eye patch).

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): A typically entertaining Western from director John Ford, it features screen legends Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda as a newly married couple, Lana and Gil Martin, who embark on frontier life in the Mohawk Valley, just as the events of the 1776 War of Independence are playing out. With the constant threat of attacks by Native Americans and British soldiers hanging over their heads, the Mohawk Valley settlers form a militia, who are called into action several times to protect their property. John Ford’s company of character actors including Ward Bond, Arthur Shields and John Carradine round out the cast, with character actress Edna May Oliver getting an Oscar nomination for playing the crotchety, but kind-hearted Mrs. McKlennar. Drums Along the Mohawk is one of director Ford’s lesser known films, sandwiched between two other Henry Fonda starrers he directed in the space of two years – Young Mr. Lincoln and the multi-award winning Grapes of Wrath.

Libeled Lady (1936): A screwball comedy featuring the classic pairing of Myrna Loy and William Powell, Libeled Lady was the fifth of their 14 films together (which included the six Thin Man murder-mystery films). However, it was an even bigger star, the “bombshell blonde” Jean Harlow, who got first billing, while rising star and future acting icon Spencer Tracy, rounded out the cast. The script allows all four actors to shine in a variety of entertainingly contrived situations, which ends with a happily-ever-after. Harlow would tragically die of kidney failure the following year at the age of 26. Libeled Lady was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but lost to The Great Ziegfeld which also starred Loy and Powell.

Cluny Brown (1946): This film is a comedy of manners, constructed on a rather silly plot, but carried along by the exotic charm of Charles Boyer, for whose sake I watched it. Boyer plays Czech political refugee Adam Belinksi, who is invited by a high-society benefactor to stay with his parents at their country manor outside London. There, he enters into a platonic relationship with eccentric parlour-maid Cluny Brown (played by acclaimed actress Jennifer Jones), who has been sent by her uncle to work there, in order to “straighten her out”. Belinski and Brown enter into a platonic relationship, which becomes increasingly complicated due to Brown’s romantic entanglement with the local chemist. I was faintly amused by all the goings-on, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, which I suspect, is because I’ve never liked Jennifer Jones. This was the last film of director Ernst Lubitsch’s celebrated career, which included classics like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner (remade as You’ve Got Mail, with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks) and To Be or Not to Be.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962): A neo-Western set in the 50’s, this film is an early example of the deconstruction of the Western genre, preceding the work of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and ultimately, Clint Eastwood. Kirk Douglas considered it his favourite film, with cowboy Jack Burns among the most tragic of the many such characters he has played in his career. One of the posters for the movie has the headline “Life Can Never Cage a Man Like This!“, a pretty good description of Burns’ impetuous and untamable spirit. Burns is a Korean War vet who makes a living as an itinerant ranch hand, with no interest in conforming to modern society. While traveling through New Mexico, he learns that a friend has been jailed for aiding illegal immigrants. He impulsively sets out to break the friend out of jail, resulting in an escalating series of events that culminates in Burns and his horse being pursued by a Sherriff (Walter Matthau) and his lawmen into the Sandia mountains. The conflict between the protagonist and the law, and the harrowing chase scenes, reminded me to a degree of Stallone’s First Blood. This is definitely a must-see film for fans of Kirk Douglas, of Westerns and of anti-establishment films. It is considered to be director David Miller’s best work; his other notable films were the noir thriller Sudden Fear, the John Wayne war film Flying Tigers and Love Happy, the Marx Brothers’ last film.

Kirk Douglas, in dramatic shot showcasing his conflict with the modern world, in the neo-Western, Lonely Are the Brave (1962).

For reference, here are the links to films #1-10, #11-20 and #21-30 in my Criterion Channel journey. Next up, #41-50, which I watched in late Oct/early Nov 2021.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 10) – 5 albums by Mastodon

This is the tenth in an on-going series of posts covering my favourite rock and metal concept albums. In December, I reviewed Steve Hackett’s 1975 classic Voyage of the Acolyte, and I now turn to Atlanta-based quartet Mastodon, who have released a number of concept albums over the years. The band came to my attention when their song, Colony of Birchmen, was nominated for Best Metal Performance in the 2007 GRAMMY Awards. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength, garnering ever-increasing critical acclaim (6 GRAMMY nominations, including 1 win) and commercial success.

Mastodon in 2020 (from left): Bill Kelliher (rhythm guitar), Troy Sanders (bass/vocals), Brent Hinds (lead guitar/vocals), Brann Dailor (drums/vocals)

Band: Mastodon

Themes/concepts: Mastodon’s first four studio albums were each linked to the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Aether (celebrated in classical literature as the fifth element, or the quintessence, which fills up the spaces in the universe). Each album’s cover features a symbol above the band’s name, representing the element. After skipping the concept approach for their next two releases, Mastodon returned to the format with Emperor of Sand in 2017, with a theme built around the experience of fighting cancer.

Album: Remission (2002)

Best songs: Ol’e Nessie, Mother Puncher, Elephant Man

Narrative genre: No common story element across songs

Remission is considered the loosest of Mastodon’s concept albums, with the only unifying element (pardon the pun) being the theme of Fire. I listened to this album only after having experienced the progressively increasing sophistication of their subsequent efforts, so it feels a bit raw to my ears. This is Mastodon’s signature musical template – Bill Kelliher’s rhythm guitar riffs, Brann Dailor’s drum fills, Brent Hinds’ and Troy Sanders’ growled vocal deliveries, all of which combine to create a wall-to-wall carpet of sludge metal. Tracks like Ol’e Nessie, Trainwreck and Mother Puncher have intricate instrumental intros that go on for 1-2 minutes, before the vocals kick in. The instrumental Elephant Man is my favourite track of the album, and reminiscent of Metallica’s Orion in terms of pacing and cadence.

Album: Leviathan (2004)

Best songs: Blood and Thunder, Iron Tusk, Hearts Alive

Narrative genre: Literary fiction (Moby Dick)

Mastodon’s second album showed that they were not a flash in the pan. Leviathan is loosely based on the novel, Moby Dick (link to the element Water), and features more variation in the singing and guitar work, compared to Remission. The first track, Blood and Thunder, opens with some killer riffs and ends up being a genuine 80’s style thrash metal head-banger, as it settles into the chorus of “white whale, holy grail”. Iron Tusk is a fast-charging song that lights up in the middle with a catchy guitar hook, that sadly appears only once. The album caps off with a 13-minute epic, Hearts Alive, which describes the sinking of the ship by the whale…Brann Dailor’s drumming is spare, creating space for vocals dripping with the anguish of drowned men and guitar riffs building up to a crescendo of doom.

Album: Blood Mountain (2006)

Best songs: Sleeping Giant, Colony of Birchmen, This Mortal Soil, Siberian Divide, Pendulous Skin

Narrative genre: Speculative fiction

With their third album, Mastodon’s music moved away from pure sludge/thrash metal to a more sophisticated sound, incorporating cleaner vocals, slower drumming and more intricate guitar work, reminiscent of Metallica’s musical evolution from the Ride the Lightning to Master of Puppets. The album tells the story of a protagonist, who has to find a crystal skull and take it to the top of Blood Mountain (link to the element Earth); along the way, he awakens the mountain (Sleeping Giant), walks past a river of blood (Capillarian Crest), encounters various creatures, including a one-eyed Sasquatch (Circle of Cysquatch), a race of tree-men (Colony of Birchmen) and flying demons (Hunters of the Sky). The entire adventure is an allegory for the human condition and its associated struggles. The album yielded the group’s first Grammy nomination, for Colony of Birchmen (the title is an homage to the 1974 Genesis song The Colony of Slippermen). The guitar solo on the final track, Pendulous Skin, could have come off an early 70’s rock album, and This Mortal Soil is fast becoming one of my all-time Mastodon favourites.

Album: Crack the Skye (2009)

Best songs: Divinations, The Last Baron

Narrative genre: Science fiction

This album’s name is a tribute to Skye Dailor, Brann Dailor’s younger sister, who committed suicide when they were both teenagers. While this is a noble and sobering aspect of the album, the story itself is pretty abstract, and if there is a connection to real life, it remains in the minds of the musicians. In fact, you have to wonder what they were smoking when they put it together, here’s the synopsis – a crippled man travels into space (link to the element Aether), gets too close to the sun and ends up being sucked into a wormhole, landing up in the spirit realm; the spirits put him into Rasputin’s body, who is murdered as he tries to usurp the Tsar’s throne; this results in both Rasputin’s and the space traveler’s souls flying through a crack in the sky, after which Rasputin tries to help the man’s soul find its way back into his body. In spite of the fantastical premise which is right up my street, I haven’t warmed up to the album in the way many critics have. There are just two songs that appealed to me, Divinations and the extraordinary 13-minute-long dreamlike The Last Baron.

Album: Emperor of Sand (2017)

Best songs: Steambreather, Ancient Kingdom, Clandestiny, Jaguar God

Narrative genre: Tragedy

Mastodon returned to the concept album format in 2017, using the allegory of a wanderer who is cursed by a Sultan (aka Death) to a lifetime journey through the desert, to describe the never-ending battle with cancer. The album was a form of catharsis for multiple band members whose friends and family members had been fighting the disease. Most of the songs represent the thoughts and feelings of the Wanderer, as he deals with the pain, exhaustion and hopelessness of his plight. Emperor of Sand received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rock Album (yes, the band’s sound now varied to the point they were not considered an always-on metal band), and the opening track Sultan’s Curse won the GRAMMY for Best Metal Performance (although it’s not one of my preferred tracks). The album closes with the poignant 8-minute-long Jaguar God, with the opening section bringing to mind some of Metallica’s ballads.

Mastodon’s latest release is the double album (not a concept album) Hushed and Grim, which is perhaps the best work in their twenty-year career. They are truly a brand that has improved with every release, staying true to their core sound, but constantly developing their song writing, instrumentation and vocal delivery.

A Criterion Channel journey, films #21-30

Here’s the third part of my series of thumbnail sketches of the films I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel streaming service. These 10 films were viewed during mid-October 2021.

Big Joys, Small Sorrows (1986): Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita was a household name in Japan, although relatively unknown internationally. Big Joys, Small Sorrows is a remake of his own 1957 nostalgia-driven crowd-pleaser, Times of Joy and Sorrow, which chronicles the life of a lighthouse keeper from the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency, as his job takes him to different picturesque locations over a 25-year period. I immensely enjoyed this heartwarming story, particularly the relationship between the lighthouse keeper Yoshiaki Fujita (played by the charismatic Gō Katō) and his father (Hitoshi Ueki won Best Supporting Actor for the role), and also the dynamic between Yoshiaki and his wife Asako (played by Reiko Ohara). In addition to its entertainment value, it is an incredibly effective ad film for Japanese domestic tourism, featuring multiple lighthouses and temples in some of the most scenic spots in the country. For those who love such nostalgia-based dramas, it’s worth checking out another one of Kinoshita-san’s best-known films, Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), the moving story of a school teacher in a small village, and her relationship over two decades with the twelve students (hence, twenty-four eyes) from her first class.

The Rocket from Calabuch (1956): I confess, I had never heard of director Luis Garcia Berlanga until I came across his films while casually browsing through the Criterion movie list. I learned that Berlanga was a master of sly social satire, adept at spotlighting the foibles of ordinary people. In The Rocket from Calabuch, a famous international nuclear scientist, Prof. Hamilton, mysteriously disappears from the public eye; he has had enough of the Cold War media circus and has decided to take time off from his military and political handlers. He emerges in the coastal village of Calabuch and takes on the persona of a somewhat addle-brained, but good-natured old man. The villagers welcome him into their fold, whereupon his sagacity has a subtle and calming impact on various fractious relationships. I find stories of this sort to be quite entertaining; they use the narrative device of an outsider in a remote community, to showcase both the good (love, kindness) and the bad (vanity, greed) in humanity. Several Johnny Depp movies – Chocolat, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands – as well as little-known gems like The Englishman who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain (1995) and The Grand Seduction (2013), fall into this category.

¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!/Welcome, Mr. Marshall! (1953): As a follow-up, I opted for Berlanga’s feature film debut, which was a bit hit at Cannes and heralded him as one of the new generation of Spanish directors. Co-written by Juan Antonio Bardem (Javier Bardem’s uncle), Welcome, Mr. Marshall! satirizes the fascination of Spaniards for all things American in the years following the Second World War. The mayor of a small Spanish town is informed of an upcoming visit by American diplomats to the region. The townspeople work themselves up into a state, dreaming of the economic benefits that are sure to be showered upon them if they suitably impress the Americans (the movie title references the Marshall Plan, a US economic program to rebuild Western Europe from 1948-52). They decide to pull out all the stops and set about preparing a grand welcome for the delegation. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. The plot gives the filmmakers plenty of opportunities to poke light-hearted fun at the quintessential human shortcomings of avarice and egotism. The characters played by veteran actors José Isbert (the mayor) and Manolo Morán (a scheming agent) best exemplify these traits. I certainly intend to watch the other Berlanga films which are considered classics of Spanish post-war cinema, such as The Executioner (1963) and Plácido (1961).

Karami-ai/The Inheritance (1962): Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi emerged as one of the great humanist directors of world cinema during 1958-61 with his brutal anti-war trilogy, The Human Condition (combined running time of 10 hours), starring acting legend Tatsuya Nakadai. Kobayashi’s follow-up effort was The Inheritance, which again featured Nakadai, this time playing the associate of a dying businessman, who asks his advisors to track down his three illegitimate children, so that they may inherit his wealth. Nakadai’s character and the other advisors, come up with various plans to take control of the fortune. Meanwhile, the businessman’s secretary, Yasuko (played by Keiko Kishi), has quietly emerged as his confidante. Who among them will end up with the inheritance? Although none of the characters are particularly likable, the film’s strength lies in keeping the viewer intrigued about the fate of the various schemes and schemers.

Kwaidan (1964): Two years after The Inheritance, Kobayashi-san came up with another magnum opus, the three-hour-long anthology film, Kwaidan, comprising four different ghost stories, drawn from 19th century Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales. It was Kobayashi’s first colour film and he makes full use of the added visual dimension, with stunning production design, makeup, visual effects, and cinematography. No wonder Kwaidan received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Guillermo del Toro calls it one of the most perfect films, artistically, that he has seen. Of the four stories, my favourite was Hoichi the Earless (some DVD covers feature a shot from this segment), while the first story, The Black Hair, has some genuine horror beats. This is a “must-see” film for any fan of international cinema and visual arts. Think of it as an artistic and much superior version of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Katsuo Nakamura in the segment Hoichi the Earless from Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964)

Khane-ye dust kojast/Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987): Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was a giant of world cinema with a repertoire of acclaimed documentaries, feature films, and short films. Where is the Friend’s Home? is the first of the so-called Koker trilogy, named after the village in northern Iran where the 3 films are set. The protagonist is 10-year-old Ahmad, who comes home from school one day and discovers he has mistakenly brought back with him a classmate’s homework book. Since the work is due the next day and the classmate, Mohammed Reza, is on his last warning for having previously failed to submit assignments properly, the conscientious Ahmad sets out to return the book. For me, the heart of the film lies in Ahmad’s innocence and simple acceptance of life’s realities, such as the fact that his presence as a thinking, responsible individual is barely acknowledged by the adults around him. What a contrast this is to many modern urban societies, in which children are very much the center of attention. The synopses for the other two films in the Koker trilogy indicate they are essentially documentaries revisiting the location and the people from the first film. This blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction has been a recurring theme of Kiarostami’s work.

Ta’m-e gīlās…/Taste of Cherry (1997): I followed up straightaway with another Kiarostami award-winner, this one far more sombre and morbid than the previous film. The narrative kicks off in media res with a middle-aged man named Badii, driving around in his car, and randomly asking people if they could get in so that he can tell them about a task he would like them to do, for which he’s willing to pay a sizeable sum of money. This strange request elicits a range of reactions from suspicion to curiosity to outright rejection. Those who do get into the car and hear what Badii has in mind, are taken aback and unwilling to comply; in fact, they try to talk him out of his plan, which I won’t reveal here. Suffice to say, the core of the film lies in these conversations between Badii and his passengers, which center on the meaning of life. Each passenger naturally approaches the topic based on their intellectual capacity, education, and life experiences. Taste of Cherry made history as the first Iranian film to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Homayoun Ershadi as Badii in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997)

The Way West (1967): Since October was a feature month for Kirk Douglas on Criterion, I watched a number of his films, the first of which was this star-packed Western, featuring Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and 20-year-old Sally Field in her first film role. Douglas plays US Senator William Tadlock, who hires a veteran guide (played by Mitchum) to lead a wagon train of settlers to Oregon. Widmark plays a headstrong settler who resents Senator Tadlock’s heavy-handed leadership style. There’s plenty of testosterone here to keep the movie chugging along, with the plot involving infighting, altercations with Native Americans, a love triangle, and even murder. Director Andrew V. McLaglan had previously made two other successful Westerns McLintock! (with John Wayne) and Shenandoah (with James Stewart) and would go on to 30-year-career as a reliable director of formula Westerns and adventure films.

I Walk Alone (1947): Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster acted together in 7 films, with the first of their collaborations being this noir thriller. Noll Turner (Douglas) and Frankie Madison (Lancaster) are small-time bootleggers and best buddies. While on a liquor run, they are chased by the police, resulting in Madison getting jailed while Turner escapes and prospers into a successful nightclub owner. When Madison gets out of prison 14 years later, he goes to meet Turner, fully expecting his equal share in the business, as per their past agreement. Turner has other ideas now and tries to distract Madison with nightclub singer Kay (played by Lizbeth Scott, whose signature smoky voice made her perfect for the role of femme fatale). The two men are drawn into an inevitable battle from which only one can survive. This is a pretty formulaic film, with Douglas playing the suave bad guy, Lancaster the angry man fighting the odds, and Scott as the singer with a heart of gold. The on-screen star power and short running time of 97 minutes make it watchable, but I rank it as one of their less memorable efforts. Director Byron Haskin found his true calling in the adventure and sci-fi genre, going on to direct classics like Treasure Island (1950), The War of the Worlds (1953), and From the Earth to the Moon (1958).

Detective Story (1951): This adaptation of a stage play, chronicles the events that take place one fateful day in a New York City police station. Kirk Douglas stars as a hot-headed, self-righteous detective, Jim McLeod, who doesn’t believe in giving an inch, as he pursues the lowlifes of the city. One day, Det. McLeod’s relentless drive for justice ricochets into his personal life with fateful consequences. The screen crackles with an array of powerhouse actors, notably Eleanor Parker (Baroness Elsa in The Sound of Music) as McLeod’s wife, William Bendix as a fellow detective, Lee Grant as a first-time shoplifter, Joseph Wiseman (of Dr. No fame) as a career criminal and Horace McMahon as the head of the detective squad. With a taut running time of 103 minutes, the tension never lets up, propelled by Douglas’ on-screen intensity and a crackerjack script. Director William Wyler received his 8th Best Director Oscar nomination and there were also nominations for Lee Grant, Eleanor Parker, and the screenplay.

Eleanor Parker as Mary McLeod and Kirk Douglas as Detective Jim McLeod in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951)

For reference, here are the links to films #1-10 and #11-20 in my Criterion Channel journey. Next up, #31-40, which I watched in the 2nd half of October 2021.

A Criterion Channel journey, films #11-20

Here’s the second part in my series of thumbnail sketches of the films I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel streaming service. These 10 films were viewed over the 2nd half of September and early October.

Ganashatru/Enemy of the People (1989): Ganashatru, an adaptation of a 1882 Henrik Ibsen play, was one of only five films by Indian master Satyajit Ray that I had not yet watched, so I was naturally thrilled to find it on Criterion. It features two Bengali acting stalwarts, both of whom started their careers in Ray films – Soumitra Chatterjee made his debut in Apur Sansar (1959) and Dhritiman Chatterjee in Pratidwandi (1970). Soumitra C. plays a doctor in a small town who observes an increase in jaundice cases, gets the local drinking water tested and discovers it is contaminated, possibly from old sewage pipes. A popular temple is in the same locality and his discovery implies that the temple’s “holy water” is also contaminated. This brings the doctor into conflict with the temple trustees and his own brother, the municipality chairman (Dhritiman C.), who are concerned that his “theory” will scare away devotees who visit the town (Peter Benchley borrowed this Ibsen plot device for Jaws). These vested interests launch a slander and misinformation campaign, which results in the doctor being branded an “enemy of the people”. This film really resonated with me, as I found strong parallels with the way politicians and special interest groups use media to spread misinformation today, be it regarding Covid or climate change or elections.

The Steel Helmet (1951): I’ve read quite a lot about Samuel Fuller, the independent American filmmaker, but had never had access to his work. Luckily Criterion has half dozen of his films and I started off with The Steel Helmet. It was the first American film to tackle the Korean War (which had started a few months earlier) and was made on a shoe-string budget in under two weeks. The film showcases the underlying racism in the US military directed against its own African-American and ethnic Japanese soldiers, and also towards the Koreans that the Americans were defending. It’s a gritty film, not easy to watch and very much devoid of any heroic war scenes. In fact, the war setting is essentially a vehicle for the message and it remains one of Fuller’s most acclaimed films.

Vampyr (1932): Another director I’ve read about a lot, but never watched is Carl Theodore Dreyer, the Danish master whose work spanned nearly half a century. His horror film Vampyr was considered a low point of his career when released, but has gained appreciation over time. In the film, a young man named Allan Gray arrives at a village and decides to spend the night at the local inn. He soon gets caught up in some mysterious occurrences through the night, perpetrated by the local village doctor and an elderly woman who turns out to be undead. Ultimately, Gray kills the woman by driving an iron stake through her corpse and the doctor dies by suffocation when flour is emptied into the chamber of the flour mill he is hiding in…a truly gruesome scene. The film is also known for the famous dream sequence in which Allan Gray sees himself looking at his own dead body in a coffin. Dreyer placed a piece of gauze in front of the camera lens, which creates a fuzzy, “found footage” look to the entire film. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s entertaining in the conventional sense, but is certainly required viewing for anyone interested in the history of cinema.

The Idiot (1951): I am a fervent devotee of Akira Kurosawa’s films, but there are a few like Dodes’ka-den and I Live in Fear that I haven’t been able to appreciate. Unfortunately, I have to add The Idiot to that list. Although based on Dostoevsky’s literary classic, and filled with the biggest names in Japanese cinema (Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Chieko Higashimaya), the storyline and in particular, the acting of Masayuki Mori as “the idiot” just irritated me no end. At nearly three hours in length, the film just kept going on and on, with its convoluted relationships and repetitive hand-wringing by many of the characters. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for an overdoes of existential angst, and in that sense, it has probably cured me of any desire to read the Russian classics.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957): Yet another masterwork by John Huston, this film features the powerhouse pairing of Deborah Kerr AND Robert Mitchum, in what is essentially a two-hander that could even have become a stage play. The film is set in the South Pacific in 1944, with Mitchum playing a US Marine who escapes from a Japanese attack and is washed up on an island. He finds an abandoned settlement and just one resident, Sister Angela, a novitiate nun who arrived a few days earlier with another priest, who died soon after. The first part of the film plays out like a relationship drama, with the two very different types of individuals learning to work together to survive. The second half transforms into a thriller, with the arrival of Japanese troops on the island, forcing Corp. Allison and Sister Angela to go into hiding. There are many twists and turns, and I genuinely feared that there would be a tragic ending, but fortunately the US Marines save the day. The core of the film is the relationship between the brash but good-hearted corporal and the prim but feisty nun. Deborah Kerr received the fourth of her six Best Actress Oscar nominations for this picture, which was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Mustang (2015): One of the most powerful movies I have seen in recent years, this Turkish language film which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and dozens of other awards, tells the story of five orphan sisters trapped in a conservative, patriarchal society and their attempts to break free. The girls are virtual prisoners in the home of their uncle, while their grandmother attempts to marry them off one by one. The narrative is presented from the perspective of Lale, the youngest of the girls, played by Güneş Şensoy. I was strongly affected by the injustice and the hypocrisy portrayed in the film, as well as the realization that there are hundreds of these real-life stories taking place around the world every day. This was Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut film and one not to be missed.

Güneş Şensoy (center) plays Lale, the youngest of the five sisters trapped in a rural patriarchal society in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s 2015 film Mustang. The other sisters are played by İlayda Akdoğan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, Elit İşcan and Doğa Doğuşlu.

The Black Cat (1934): This was the first of several horror films produced by Universal Pictures to leverage the popularity of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, following their instant stardom in 1931 with Frankenstein and Dracula respectively. The film combines elements of revenge thriller, psychological horror and even some science fiction. For audiences who only associated Karloff with the brutal monster in Frankenstein, it’s quite a revelation to see him here as a suave and brilliant architect, the owner of a futuristic home in the mountains of Hungary. Bela Lugosi is a local doctor who returns to the area after 15 years in a prisoner-of-war camp, seeking vengeance on Karloff’s character for his betrayal during World War I. A young couple on a holiday become the unwitting pawns in the cat-and-mouse game of intrigue between the two enemies. The film ends in a grand climax, which includes a satanic cult and some pretty gruesome scenes.

Supermarket Woman (1996): This breezy comedy is the second last of the 10 collaborations between director Juzo Itami and his wife Nobuko Miyamoto, before his untimely and mysterious death (ruled a suicide, but suspected murder) in 1997. It’s very much in the vein of A Taxing Woman and its sequel, with Miyamoto-san’s character Hanako helping her friend, the owner of a struggling supermarket, to revitalize his business and take on an unethical rival around the block. There are plenty of heartwarming and inspirational scenes, as the gutsy, never-say-die Hanako inspires the different department heads of the supermarket to change their outdated practices and become more competitive and customer-friendly.

The Raven (1935): Another Karloff-Lugosi pairing from Universal Pictures, this one is named after an Edgar Allan Poe poem, and the plot has a macabre connection to the works of Poe. Bela Lugosi plays brilliant but megalomaniacal surgeon Dr. Vollin, who becomes romantically obsessed with a young woman after performing an emergency operation to save her life. When the woman’s father asks Dr. Vollin to keep out of his daughter’s life, the surgeon concocts a diabolical scheme to murder the father. To achieve his objective, he takes advantage of an escaped murderer Bateman (played by Karloff) who arrives at his door one night asking to have plastic surgery performed to alter his features. Frankly, it’s a contrived plot, with the purpose being to showcase some grotesque make-up on Karloff and to set up a climax in Dr. Vollin’s secret chamber filled with torture devices inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Although not as graphic as contemporary horror films, the implied violence and twisted mentality are disturbing enough. With a running time of just one hour, it’s a watchable oddity from the Universal Pictures horror library.

The Valachi Papers (1972): Although an English language film, The Valachi Papers is actually a Dino De Laurentiis production with a predominantly European cast and crew, with the exception of American star Charles Bronson. And Bronson himself was a big name on the continent at that point, having appeared in a number of popular European films including Once Upon a Time in the West, Rider on the Rain and Red Sun. Bronson plays Joe Valachi, the real-life mafioso who became a government witness in 1963 and whose revelations about the American mafia form the basis of most of what is known about them by the general public. The film covers a 40-year period, from Valachi’s induction into the mafia ranks as a teenager to the events which led to him becoming an informant. Bronson of course, is known for his screen presence, but I was captivated by the performance of the supporting cast, including veteran actor Lino Ventura as mafia boss Vito Genovese, Guido Leontini as Genovese’s capo Tony Bender, Angelo Infanti as Genovese’s partner-in-crime Lucky Luciano and Joseph Wiseman as Salvatore Maranzano, the first of the American mafia “Godfathers” (Wiseman rose to fame playing the character of Dr. No ten years earlier). The film had a tough time upon its release as The Godfather had come out just a few months earlier and critics compared it unfavourably with Coppola’s instant classic. Nevertheless, it’s a solid film and well worth watching for fans of the genre.

For reference, here’s the link to #1-10.

Next up, #21-30, which will include films from Japan, Spain, Iran and the US.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 9) – Steve Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte

It’s been 14 months since the last entry in this series, which was Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois. This time around, I am going back in time again the 70s to an artist I only recently discovered, Steve Hackett, the lead guitarist for Genesis in the 70s when they were a prog rock band. Hackett decided to record his first solo album during a break after touring for Genesis’ 1974 megahit A Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. When putting together the musicians for the recording sessions, he invited two of his bandmates from Genesis – Phil Collins on drums and Mike Rutherford on bass. He rounded out the core band with his brother John Hackett, who I think then appeared on all his subsequent solo albums. The album was very well received and Hackett went on to record more than two dozen solo albums with his latest having been released a few weeks ago at the age of 71!

Artist: Steve Hackett (guitars, mellotron), accompanied by John Hackett (flute, synthesizer), Phil Collins (drums, vocals on Star of Sirius), Mike Rutherford (bass guitar, 12-string guitar), Sally Oldfield (vocals on Shadow of the Hierophant), John Acock (all keyboards), Robin Miller (oboe, English horn), Nigel Warren-Green (cello on The Hermit)

Album: Voyage of the Acolyte (1975)

Narrative genre: Pastoral/medieval

Album theme/concept: Song titles linked to Tarot cards

Best songs: Ace of Wands, A Tower Struck Down, Star of Sirius, Shadow of the Hierophant

What makes it special: For starters, we get half of the band Genesis for free on the album! This is a predominantly instrumental album, showcasing not just Steve Hackett’s prowess as a guitarist, but also in the departments of production and musical arrangement. The songs have an easy flow and feel layered and textured, on account of the use of the Mellotron and synthesizer, as well as additional instruments like flute, oboe, cello and English horn on some songs.

The album kicks off with a strong track, Ace of Wands, characterized by a catchy riff. It’s a great showcase of Hackett’s guitar playing, while giving plenty of room for the Mellotron, flute and bells.

The standout song on the album, however, is not an instrumental. It’s the 7-minute epic Star of Sirius, which one reviewer described as the best Genesis song that Genesis never recorded, has Phil Collins on vocals…and he would go on to take over as lead vocalist for Genesis on their next album, following the departure of Peter Gabriel. The songs starts off in dream-like fashion with guitars and mellotron, and then at the 2’30” mark, Collins’ drumming kicks in and ramps up the pace.

Another favourite is the instrumental A Tower Struck Down, with a strong percussive sound which manages to sound rather sinister, and could well have been the soundtrack for a thriller or horror film.

Singer-songwriter Sally Oldfield who made a name for herself singing on her brother Mike Oldfield’s hit 1973 album Tubular Bells, provides her distinctive vocals for Shadow of the Hierophant, which is the longest track in the album, clocking in at over 11 minutes. There is also a 17 minute version available as a bonus track on the album. It’s quite a musical journey, with different parts of the track sounding quite different from each other; in fact I had to check if I was still on the same song!

An interesting footnote, the album cover is a watercolour painting by Brazilian artist Kim Poor, who went on to marry Steve Hackett and designed many of his subsequent solo album covers.

Although this was the only concept album that Steve Hackett released, two of his other early albums, Spectral Mornings (1979) and Defector (1980) contain equally outstanding tracks.

A Criterion Channel journey, films #1-10

I got myself a Criterion Channel subscription in September this year and have watched more than 60 films in the past three and a half months, a mix of international arthouse and American classics. I’m going to try and write out short thumbnails of all the films, in groupings of 10 films each.

The Clock (1945): This is only the third film I’ve watched by celebrated director Vincente Minnelli. The romantic comedy was his follow-up to Meet Me In St. Louis, reuniting him with that film’s star (and his future wife) Judy Garland. She plays a spunky city girl who has a chance encounter at Penn Station with a guileless small-town soldier (Robert Walker) on a two-day trip to New York City. Although not love at first sight, there is a connection between the two which deepens over the next 24 hours, and results in a frantic tussle with the city’s bureaucracy to get married before his return to base. It’s very much a product of its time, reflecting a simpler value system when people were grateful just to be alive. Frankly, I didn’t care much for either of the two leads, although their earnest on-screen personas made the story believable.

Corporal Joe Allen (played by Robert Walker) and Alice Maybery (played by Judy Garland) have a whirlwind romance in Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945)

Mélodie en sous-sol/Any Number Can Win (1963): This outstanding French crime film stars heartthrob Alain Delon and acting legend Jean Gabin, who team up to pull off an audacious heist of a casino in Cannes. As is typical for this genre, a significant part of the film is focused on the assembly of the team and the logistics planning. Delon’s character impersonates a high roller in order to stake out the casino from within, and he gets to look good in a tux while romancing one of the beautiful young stage performers. Most French heist films create empathy for the criminals and then break the audiences’ hearts when the heist ultimately fails…this film is no different and the manner in which their plan unravels at the end is both stressful and devastating.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962): This is the first film in the beloved Zatoichi film series, featuring the eponymous blind masseuse who moonlights as a swordsman, righting wrongs and breaking the hearts of impressionable young village damsels. I had watched a later entry in the series Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, which I found very boring, although it featured Toshiro Mifune reprising his role as Yojimbo. On the other hand, the 2003 remake by Takeshi Kitano is one of my all-time favourite samurai films. Therefore, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect with this franchise origin film but it turned out to be entertaining enough, once I got accustomed to the physique and mannerisms of actor Shintaro Katsu. The stories, no doubt, got repetitive over the years, but understandably became a guilty pleasure for legions of fans.

Across the Pacific (1942): Released shortly after Humphrey Bogart’s megahits The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, this spy thriller was directed by John Huston with Vincent Sherman taking over when Huston joined the US war effort. Bogart plays Army Captain Rick Leland who infiltrates a Japanese spy network attempting to coordinate an attack on the Panama Canal. The film reunites Bogart with his co-stars from The Maltese Falcon, well-known character actor Sydney Greenstreet as the antagonist and Mary Astor as his love interest. The film lacks the magic of Bogey’s other hit films, but is reasonably enjoyable. Interestingly, in the original script, the Japanese attack was supposed to be on Pearl Harbor (!!!), but then the real Pearl Harbor attack took place during filming, so the script was re-written changing the target to Panama.

The Browning Version (1951): I had watched the 1994 adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play starring Albert Finney, but this one from 1951 has now become my preferred version. Filmed from a screenplay by Rattigan himself, it features Michael Redgrave as the bitter, cuckolded Classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris, now in the autumn of his career and about to retire on account of his failing health. Redgrave’s restrained but searing performance of a man who is on the brink of mental collapse due to a lifetime of repressed emotions and unfulfilled ambitions won him the Best Actor award at Cannes, and the film itself was nominated for the Palm d’Or. There are brilliant supporting performances from young actor Brian Smith as the sympathetic student Taplow and Jean Kent as Crocker-Harris’ frustrated and vicious wife. I saw strong thematic parallels with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, something other critics have commented on as well.

Classics master Andrew Crocker-Harris (played by Michael Redgrave) and his student Taplow (played Brian Smith) in Anthony Asquith’s The Browning Version (1951)

A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988): This sequel to the popular 1987 comedy A Taxing Woman, continues the adventures of the intrepid female tax investigator Hideki Gondō, who continues her battle against corruption and tax evasion. Directed by Juzo Itami and starring his wife and regular leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto, this film continues their successful collaboration which started off in 1984 with the dark comedy The Funeral and followed a year later with the brilliant Tampopo. This time around, Ms. Gondō investigates a religious sect which is being used by politicians and the mafia as a front for tax evasion. Miyamoto-san’s on-screen energy and a great supporting cast make this comedy a breezy watching experience.

Odd Man Out (1947): James Mason’s performance in this film earned him some of the best reviews of his British cinema career, shortly before he moved across the Atlantic to become a big Hollywood star. Mason plays Irish Nationalist Johnny McQueen, who at the start of the film is in hiding, having escaped from prison a few months earlier. He is now ordered by the Nationalist leadership to rob a mill to secure funds for the movement. The robbery goes wrong, a guard is killed and McQueen is shot and injured during the escape. Separated from his gang, the rest of the film traces McQueen’s tortured journey through the underbelly of the city as he seeks to evade capture. Having become a household name as a wanted man, he crosses paths with a number of Dickensian characters, never sure if they will help him or betray him to the police. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Krasker with a strong noir-inspired visual sensibility; a similar effort, working with the same director Carol Reed, would win Krasker an Oscar two years later for The Third Man.

Kathleen Sullivan (played by Kathleen Ryan) and the ill-fated Johnny McQueen (played by James Mason) in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947)

The Grand Maneuver (1955): This tedious comedy-drama by director René Clair was a complete waste of my time. A lieutenant in the French cavalry undertakes a bet with his fellow officers that he will “win the favours” of a woman whose name has been picked randomly from a lot. I just found the whole premise unpleasant, although in the style of the times, the film makes it all out to be harmless fun! The film features Brigitte Bardot in one of her early roles just before she achieved international stardom.

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956): This is the final entry in Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy of films chronicling the adventures of renowned Japanese Kensei (“sword-saint”) Miyamoto Musashi, played by screen legend Toshiro Mifune. I had watched the first two films almost twenty years ago, but hadn’t managed to track down the final film until now. Samurai III features returning characters from the earlier films, including the two women who are in love Musashi, and a skilled samurai Sasaki Kojiro, who is obsessed with defeating Musashi in direct combat. Actor Kōji Tsuruta, who plays Sasaki Kojiro, lights up the screen with his striking features and intensity, while Mifune is his usual imposing presence. The duel occurs only at the end of the film, but there was plenty of plot development and character interaction to keep me glued to the screen throughout. I’ll certainly go back and watch the first two films when I get a chance.

I Was Born, But… (1932): This early silent film from Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu is a charming little gem, about the difficulties faced by two little brothers in settling into a new neighborhood and school. Their father has just moved the family to the suburbs of Tokyo so that he can be closer to his place of work. The siblings have to deal with the inevitable bullying from a group of neighborhood kids, which they manage to overcome. But the real blow comes when they see that their stern father, who they worship at home, demean himself excessively in front of his boss and co-workers to curry favor. This realization leads to tantrums at home and a dramatic hunger strike, all of which eventually fizzle out in the face of their parents’ maturity, good nature and some yummy home-made onigiri. It’s a wonderful story about the complicated world of adults as seen through the simple eyes of children, but told without any judgement by the storyteller. Later in his career, Ozu directed a loose remake with stronger comedic beats, titled in Good Morning.

More to come with #11-20, which will feature films from India, Germany, Japan, Turkey and the US.

2021 Reading: Q3 update

My reading pace in the third quarter of the year was the same as the previous three months with 7 books completed, adding up to a total of 27 books so far this year, which I’ve covered off in my Q1 update part 1 and part 2 published in April and Q2 update published in July. This time around, the books were predominantly fiction, and perhaps for the first time ever in a three-month block, every author was a first-time read for me.

Persephone Station by Stine Leicht (2021): This scifi adventure has elements of a Western, with a plot that borrows from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Frank Herbert’s Dune. On an outback planet named Persephone Station, a stereotypical evil corporation has been attempting to discover the native population’s secret of extended life into hiding. The corporation representative Vissia eventually discovers where the natives have been hiding out and hires mercenaries to wipe them out. The natives turn to a local crime boss Rosie (with a proverbial heart of gold) and request them for help, so Rosie puts together a team to do so. This rag-tag group of social outcasts come together aided by plenty of heavy weaponry and travel to the natives’ hidden enclave in the desert in a dropship named Kurosawa (wink! wink!) to await the mercenaries sent by the Serrao-Orlov corporation. The first half of the book focuses on the coming together of the team, while the second half features the battle in the desert. Author Stine Leicht has filled the novel with an ensemble of interesting characters, receiving kudos for inclusivity, given the number of prominent roles played by LGBTQ and BIPOC individuals. I found it difficult to keep track of all the different characters, but overall, this was a fast-paced read.

People Like Them by Samira Sedira/translated by Lara Vergnaud (2021): This short (just 192 pages) but hard-hitting novel is simultaneously a crime thriller and an exploration of unconscious bias in modern society. Ms. Sedira creates an a couple of interesting variations to the standard narrative. First, she places the action in the countryside, far from the relatively enlightened cosmopolitan centres. Secondly, she creates a situation involving racial bias from one end and class bias from another side, then ponders the question of which one is the more powerful negative force. A wealthy mixed-race couple with 3 kids buys a property in a remote mountain village in France, and soon start mixing socially with the locals, inadvertently creating all sorts of cultural and societal upheavals. One thing leads to another, ending with a horrific crime committed by one of the residents, Constant Guillot. The novel is told in the first person by Constant’s wife Anna, starting off with Constant’s court trial, then flashing back to the events that led to this tragic conclusion. It’s a gripping read and sets up all sorts of questions about the definition of equality and ethics, reminding us that bad behaviour can also come from people of colour.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (2020): Louise Erdrich is a winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. She is a part-descendant of Native Americans, a registered member of a Chippewa tribe in North Dakota and pretty much all her prolific works of fiction, poetry and children’s literature are set within Native America communities. The Night Watchman is inspired by events involving Ms. Erdrich’s grandfather in the 50’s and features the character of Thomas Wazhashk as the fictional version of her grandfather. Wazhashk is a night watchman at a local manufacturing plant and also a Chippewa council member, to fight an emancipation bill that is part of the larger Indian termination policy pursued by the US government during the 50’s and 60’s to “assimilate” Native Americans into modern white society. Against this backdrop, Ms. Erdrich weaves in other sub-plots involving various members of Thomas’ tribe, each quirky, colorful and relatable in their own way, and driven by their hopes, desires, fears and frailties.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015): I was reminded of this Pulitzer prize winning novel when positive reviews for its follow-up The Committed started appearing in March this year, just as its celebrated author turned 50. And so, I decided to read the first novel, a first-person account of a South Vietnamese refugee/exile in the US who is actually a communist mole. The story takes us through many phases of the unnamed protagonist’s life, starting from his escape prior to the fall of South Vietnam, to his life in the US (which includes a stint as a consultant for a film on the Vietnam war), to his participation in a failed mission by an army of rebels to re-enter Vietnam. Although a communist mole, he is captured and tortured by the Vietnamese to ascertain whether his ideology has withstood the corrupting influence of life in America. In fact, the entire narrative of the novel is framed as his written confession. Viet Thanh Nguyen is perhaps the most accomplished wordsmith I have ever come across in popular literature. Every few pages, I came across a sentence or a passage that was a masterwork of metaphor, wry humour, self-deprecation and cynicism.

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (2021): One of the most powerful stories I have read in recent years, this debut novel heralds the arrival of 29-year-old Nathan Harris as a major new voice in contemporary literature. Set in the fictional town of Old Oak in Georgia state in the aftermath of the American Civil War, the novel tells the story of the landowner George Walker, who pits himself against local sentiment when he provides employment and shelter to two brothers, former slaves who have been freed through the Emancipation Proclamation. The implications of George’s actions ripple across the Old Ox, resulting in broken lives and eventually, death and destruction. Although George takes the initial action, it’s his wife Isabelle who emerges at the end of the novel as the more resilient of the two. There is also a significant sub-plot involving their son Caleb, which actually sets in motion the second half of the novel. The Sweetness of Water was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and was Oprah’s book of the month for June 2021.

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris (2021): This detailed and fascinating biography of the director of classics such as The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as well as crowd-pleasers like Working Girl and The Birdcage is a must-read for any fan of films. Mike Nichols truly lived an extraordinary life, starting off performing comedy skits with his partner Elaine May, then hitting the New York theatre scene like a whirlwind as a successful director of Broadway plays, before crashing into Hollywood as the ultimate outsider, with his first two films garnering a total of 20 Oscar nominations! Along the way, he worked with actors like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, directing them in some of the most memorable roles of their careers. The book provides a fascinating inside view into the tortured soul of a genius and lays bare all the artistic chaos that lies behind the beautifully wrought works of art we enjoy on our screens. The end of the book was quite poignant, as Nichols in failing health and not having directed a film since Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007, still yearned for acknowledgement and recognition from an industry which had little interest in the kind of high-intensity character explorations that he was known for. It was quite a hefty read and took me several months to get through, but well worth the effort.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (2016): This creepy novel begins with a horrific crime committed by Louise, a middle-aged nanny working for an upper middle class family, then flashes back to the history of her relationship with that family, attempting to explore the “why” of the crime. Inspired by a real life incident that took place in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2012, French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani has transposed the story to Paris’s 10th arrondissement and was originally published in French under the title Chanson Douce and then released in English in 2018. Essentially a character study, Ms. Slimani paints all the protagonists in shades of grey – Louise, the parents Paul and Myriam, even their two small children Mila and Adam. The sequence of events begins with Myriam being offered a job by an ex-colleague, after she spent a period of time raising the two children. Naturally, for Myriam to go back to work, the couple have to hire a nanny, and very soon they are thrilled to discover that Louise is perfect in every way. Over time, their trust in Louise grows to the point that she is treated like a member of the family. Louise develops a sense of entitlement in terms of her place in the family, but of course, there are invisible lines that exist between employer and employee. As Louise knowingly or unknowingly crosses those lines, a subtle friction sets into the perfect relationship. Louise harbors a sense of unfulfillment in relation to her own family life, and with the safe haven she has built with her new adopted family now under threat, a growing neurosis sets in, which ultimately culminates in the grisly act. The unsettling conclusion to the story seems to be that one can never really know what goes on in another person’s mind, and on rare occasions, trust can be betrayed.

September was a “dry” month as far as reading is concerned, and so the two novels I started off on, both broadly falling into the eco-fiction sub-genre – Matt Bell’s Appleseed and Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring – have not attained much reading momentum. I’m not even confident that I will finish either book. Meanwhile, Damon Galgut’s The Promise, which has just won the Booker Prize for 2021, indeed looks promising! And I’m looking forward to oceanographer Dr. Edith Wedder’s non-fiction book on deep sea marine life, titled Below the Edge of Darkness, which I bought last month.