24 City (2008)
Jia Zhangke’s documentary takes place in Chengdu, western China, and focuses on a factory that provides among other things parts for war planes. The primary focus of the factory seems to be in aiding China’s conflicts in the 20th century. We hear from individuals who have worked at the factory, how their lives were when it was thriving, and of how life has changed with its closure to be replaced by an apartment complex known as 24 City. Zhangke’s documentary taps into a common story of work and industry, how particular areas thrive for a time but in time become obsolete and those involved there are left behind. We bear witness to the transition of this factory, to hear of it at its peak and to witness its own sad descent into oblivion. The people featured here are a mere drop in the ocean of its history and story but it’s a fascinating immersion.
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita has been on my must-see list for quite some time. He once again teams up with the brilliant Marcello Mastroianni who takes on the role of Marcello Rubini, who is a journalist that writes for gossip magazines. He is in Rome for seven days and the film’s near three hours traces his exploits across a week in the Italian capital which includes brushes with movie stars, wooing a series of women, trying to deal with a fractious relationship he is currently in, and even finding time to meet up with his father who is in the city. Fellini guides us seamlessly from one set piece to the next as we are immersed in Italian society, especially the nightlife to be found in the celebrity world with both its delights and decadence visible for all to see. The film’s title translates as either the “sweet” or “good life” and in the early reels Marcello’s life does seem to fit the tag but as the story goes on we learn his existence is anything but. After such a long wait to see this, La Dolce Vita did not disappoint. It had more of the scope, scale and feel of 8½ (1963) which would be considered Fellini’s masterpiece. I am still of the opinion that La Strada (1954) is the peak of Fellini but La Dolce Vita is still up there as a magnificent piece of filmmaking.
The Lower Depths (1957)
Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film is set in a world of dire poverty, the slums overlooked by a city. Here a greedy landlord and his wife rent out spaces in large huts to a series of characters who struggle to keep up with the payments and whose only comfort is one another’s company. They have backgrounds that suggest better times but now they are down on their luck with not all what they seem. A thief known as Sutekichi is having an affair with the landlord’s wife but has grown increasingly fond of her younger sister who cares little for him. When the landlord’s wife beseeches him to kill her husband, Sutekichi has the option of potentially a better life for the poor but will it destroy any chance he has with his lover’s sister? The Lower Depths is more low-key than some of Kurosawa’s epic ventures but it still has enough in terms of story and a quirky and intriguing bunch of characters, especially an old man who arrives early on but is evasive about his past. What’s his story? Kurosawa enthusiasts will definitely need to try this one but if you want to see the maestro’s best work you’d be best starting with the likes of Rashomon, Ikiru, Yojimbo and Ran.
Paul M. Sammon – Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (2017)
Paul M. Sammon’s epic book is essentially an A-Z or encyclopedia of Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 sci-fi, Blade Runner, which I first saw when I was six years old (strange birthday present, Dad!) and spent a good few years trying to understand. My continued intrigue was rewarded by the time I reached my teens and my VHS (yes, I am that old) continued to be worn out even further with repeat viewings of this stunning film, and that was the inferior version I was watching! This is actually the second time I been through Sammon’s book though this 2017 edition is vastly different, with both new material, amended segments, lengthy interviews with the cast members and also some insight into the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, which I have yet to see though I have heard good things. Sammon’s book is a lengthy read, it has everything here from Blade Runner’s origins in Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, through initial scripting by Hampton Fancher with later additions from David Peoples all the way through the difficult shoot, its failure on release and finally the long road to acceptance as one of the greatest films in cinematic history. Sammon leaves no stone unturned in getting to the heart of the many tales and myths that have emerged since Blade Runner first appeared 37 years ago. For fans of the film this is a must read. It doesn’t get the 5 star treatment due to the disappointing editing with a worrying amount of errors throughout, not just with the spelling, but even inaccuracies such as confusing Amazon with Netflix. These seem minor things but I find such errors in any piece of writing ruin the flow for me when I am reading. A second proofread here and this book is perfection. That said, it remains a superb testament to my favourite film of all time.
Hana Ros & Matteo Farinella – Neurocomic (2014)
Hana Ros writes while Matteo Farinella illustrates this short but insightful journey into the world of neuroscience. The story begins with a young man who spots a beautiful woman but before he can approach he is whisked away, going through the eye of an unnamed individual and into their brain. Inside, he begins a neuroscience odyssey, working his way through different parts of the brain and along the way meeting some of the key individuals that have studied this organ so meticulously. Farinella’s illustrations give the brain the feel of a fantastical world with weird characters and strange encounters and dangerous monsters, while Ros condenses down a complex field of science into brief but informative dialogue. You’ll not learn everything there is to know about neuroscience from this book but it’s an accessible introduction and/or overview if you have an interest.
Adrian Tomine – Killing and Dying (2015)
Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel is divided into six individual stories, all set in the present day and addressing a myriad of issues such as family, relationships and grief. Each story is so different that it is difficult to pick a stand out from the rich offerings. Amber Sweet was an excellent chronicle of the dangers to be found with online exposure and mistaken identity. Killing and Dying looks at the relationship between two parents whose maladjusted daughter believes she has found a calling in the world of stand up comedy. While the stories have their variations, Tomine adapts and changes his approach in the visual feel of the narratives as well. Each one packs a punch, changing in mood in a heartbeat and leaving you tentative and sometimes on edge as you turn the page. An intriguing collection.
Steven & Ben Nadler – Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (2017)
Siblings – Ben & Steven Nadler – offer a historical summary of some of the key philosophers from the seventeenth century. A range of great thinkers are briefly covered with both aspects of their lives and their theories explored. Steven Nadler offers the tales being these figures while Ben Nadler illustrates their respective journeys in the timelines. While offering useful summaries of their thinking, the book also looks at the challenge they each faced of expounding such ideas in a society that was dominated by religion. The title of the book “Heretics” tells you all you need to know about the obstacles many of these figures such as Newton, Voltaire, Hobbes, Descartes and Locke all faced. That they rose to such a test is credit to each of them, not just in their bravery but in the sheer determination to change the way the world was viewed. As with any book on philosophy, a lot of the subjects were pretty complicated for a simple minded soul such as I but each portrait was interesting and the book is never dull. It was refreshing to see women amongst the thinkers featured here which was both welcome and surprising considering the male-dominated world of the seventeenth century. This is a useful introductory collection to these philosophers and a potentially useful springboard for those wishing to explore their ideas in more depth.
John Lee Anderson & Jose Hernandez – Che: A Revolutionary Life (2018)
Not everyone will be familiar with the life of revolutionary, Che Guevara (1928-1967), but millions will know his face which became one of the 20th century’s most iconic images. Che lived and died for his ideals, he had a vision of a better world, a more just world, but he is remembered both as a heroic icon of revolution, but also as a murderer, depending on which side one falls on in the debate. When I was at university I wanted to know more about the man behind that image so I read John Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life which offered an in-depth biography of his life. It had everything. In this graphic novel, Anderson teams up with artist, Jose Hernandez, to create a condensed version of Che’s life. The illustrations are superb, capturing Che impeccably while recreating many of the photographs of him during his life and career. The majority are imagined recreations of the key moments beginning with his early years in Argentina, his part in the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s and ultimately his ill-fated attempts at revolution in the Congo and lastly in Bolivia. All of the key figures that worked with and shaped Che’s life are beautifully depicted throughout. If the novel has one weakness it is that it is a summary. Che’s motorcycle journey through South America and into Central America that shaped the man he became is only briefly touched on and even with the likes of the Cuban Revolution you feel like you’re only skimming the surface of what really happened. What the book did especially well is offering an authentic, unbiased look at the man. A lot of the content depicts Che well but there are moments that I was uncomfortable with, actions I I don’t believe I could have carried out were I in the same position, or perhaps you had to have lived such a life and been in those moments to truly comprehend it. Che’s place in history is for the individual to decide – hero or villain, or maybe both – I won’t decide for you. I would recommend this as an introduction to Che Guevara, no question, and if what you read piques your interest then Anderson’s biography, though long, is a must read.
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina (1877)
After 30+ years of reading books I have finally delved into the world of Leo Tolstoy. It was with some trepidation that I tackled Anna Karenina, given that I knew it was not just a long book but I had also heard it was complicated, though not as complex as War and Peace, which I have yet to brave. Although the title refers to one character, it is actually about a series of people in high society in Russia. It begins with Prince Oblonsky whose latest affair has been uncovered by his wife and the marriage is under threat. Oblonsky’s sister, Anna, appears to help repair bridges and during her stay meets the handsome Count Vronsky who sets many hearts aflutter, particularly Kitty who is the sister of Princess Oblonsky. Kitty has a suitor of her own by the name of Levin, a landowner, but she only has eyes for Vronsky, who falls for the married Anna and it all starts to get very scandalous. While the story is largely centred on the affair that Anna and Vronsky ultimately have and the disgrace it brings, their tale is one we dip in and out of regularly, spending large amounts of time with the other characters. It’s a long story and not always easy to keep track of. My honest conclusion is that it is well-written but for such a long novel I came away feeling like not a great deal had happened. Anna and Vronsky’s story was great but the interest waned when in the company of the other characters who were just not as interesting. This hasn’t put me off taking on War and Peace but that will be saved for another year.
Fabien Grolleau & Jeremie Royer – Darwin: An Exceptional Voyage (2018)
Fabien Grolleau and Jeremie Royer team up to chronicle the journey of Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle in the 1830s. This five-year long journey to map parts of South America would lead to a series of key scientific discoveries for Darwin who found and collected hundreds of new species and from his travels began to theorise about the idea of evolution, particularly after his visit to the Galapagos Islands. Grolleau and Royer introduce their book by explaining it is not an inexhaustible look at Darwin’s time on HMS Beagle for that would take many graphic novels. Instead, the book picks out some key moments during the journey not just with Darwin’s discoveries but also with his moral conscience, horrified by the sight of slavery but also dismissive of indigenous people due to their lack of civilisation. Some of the scenarios are imagined takes but the cusp of the story is here. Beautifully illustrated throughout, this is a fascinating wade in the shallows of the ocean of Darwin’s life but there is still enough to make the experience worth your time.