Thursday, July 18, 2019

Review of 'The Upside'

An American remake of a French film with dodgy racial politics, that was an unexpected and somewhat inexplicable success. A rich white guy who is quadiplegic after a paragliding accident takes on an unsuitable Black ex-con as his carer, partly to annoy his business assistant and perhaps also to ensure that he doesn't survive long due to the Black guy's incompetence. But in a familiar trope from the movies, the poor guy turns out to know a lot about life and revives the rich guy's sense of joy through experience.

Despite the thinness of the plot and the dodginess of the premise it's quite enjoyable to watch.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Review of 'The Anubis Gates' by Tim Powers

Not read any Tim Powers before, and I ended up really liking this. It's a bit of a romp, with touches of horror too (and I try to never read horror) but it's clever, and well-written too. There's plenty of action and suspense, but good characters and emotional depth - even the bad guys have their own inner life and problems.

I don't know that much about the Romantic poets, but I have the feeling that Powers did his research here - Byron and Coleridge are both characters in the plot, and they feel right to me. So does his early nineteenth century London, which includes lots of streets and neighborhoods that have now disappeared.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review of 'The War in the Air' by H G Wells

Re-read after many years, and not as much fun as I remember it having been. Desperate to gratify my craving for steampunk, but it's hard to find anything that's much good. Perhaps I've muddled it up with Michael Moorcock's 'Laughter of Carthage' series.

I remembered this as having lots of airship combat and ornithopters, but there isn't all that much; and the dialogue - Wells' pechant for transliterating working-class speech so that the characters who use it seem rather stupid - really grates.

Review of 'Going Underground' by Phil Brett

A worthy successor to 'Comrades Come Rally', Phil Brett's sequel is set in the same post-revolutionary Britain. Our hero Pete Kalder is recovering from trauma in a sort of therapeutic community, but is soon pulled out of convalescence to help unravel another plot to reverse the gains of the revolution. It's tightly plotted, with lots of twists, good characters and vivid descriptions of locations and settings - plenty of long meetings, which made it all feel sadly rather true to life...that's probably what a post-revolutionary Britain would be like. Kalder is a great wise-cracking, sharp-dressing lead, with an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-C20th music and a trust-nobody attitude that gets him into trouble with the party and the remnants of the police. An enjoyable read, and I hope there's more to come.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Review of 'I, Tonya'

I enjoyed this way more than I expected to...I'm not very interested in sport, and less so in figure skating. I have only the dimmest recollection of the events it describes.

But this was very much the antithesis of the conventional sport film in which an underprivileged outsider triumphs over adversity through will power and determination. Here adversity triumphs over the underprivileged outsider, who very obviously has plenty of talent but nothing else - no contacts, no network, no social graces, and none of the insight that she might have needed to work out how to get by without those things.

It's well acted and shot in a way that seems to recall the nastier, shinier period it depicts.

From the film's narrative Tonya Harding actually got a rough deal - she doesn't seem to have done all that much wrong apart from choosing the wrong mother, and then the wrong husband who chose the wrong friends and associates. She seems to have been punished harder than she deserved for not dobbing her vile husband in, while others got off more lightly.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Review of 'The Road Home' by Rose Tremain

Another beautifully written book by Rose Tremain, with a great portrait of the central character - Lev, a middle-aged Polish man who leaves his village to come to England so as to be able to support his mother and daughter - and lots of great secondary characters too. Despite the miseries that befall Lev, and some of the awful people that he encounters, it's basically positive and hopeful...probably more so than real life would be, but that's sometimes what we need books for.

Review of 'The City of Lost Children'

Re-watched this after attending some events at the Stroud Steampunk Weekend. I remembered the film as being visually arresting but couldn't recall much about the story line...and now, ten minutes after it ended, I understand why; the plot is basically incomprehensible, a mish-mash of images and cliches that doesn't add up to anything. There is a summary on Wikipedia which suggests that it's an anti-capitalist film...

Another film where there is a strong argument for a twenty-minute "extended trailer" or "art director's cut", so that we can enjoy the visuals and not have to worry about narrative.

Watched on the Middle Floor at Springhill, all by myself because no-one else wanted to sit through it.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Review of 'The Three Body Problem' by Cixin Liu

The "hardest" hard science fiction I have read for ages, with lots of theoretical physics in it. Lots of ideas and weirdness too, including a virtual reality game that rather recalled to me the 'Second Life' thing that was going on in Snow Crash.

There's lots to like in this - especially the earlier parts, set during the Cultural Revolution, which is as hard to understand for us as the alien civilisation depicted later. And the early sections about SETI.

But other aspects were sort of clunking, and I did get a bit bored by the very long section on unfolding a proton in n-dimensional space...at least that's what I think it was about.  And I find the suggestion that advances in civilisation depend on increasing theoretical knowledge in subatomic physics (the aliens intend to stymie all progress on Earth by muddling up experiements in particle acceleration) very problematic...it's one way to think about the relationship between science and technology, but not the only way.

Review of Tolkien

Rather plodding biopic about Tolkien, who didn't have a very interesting life (student then professor at Oxford). Some interest from the cutting backwards and forwards to awful experiences in the Great War, into which fantasy sequences have been inserted (dragons, monsters). I note in passing that depictions of WW1 in films tend to emphasise the slaughter and the horror, but depictions of WW2 do so less consistently.

Without the intercollated WW1 scenes it would be a dull biopic about a quite dull bloke and his dull posh friends (and nice kind wife). They drink a lot of tea and eat cake. Once he and his girlfriend are thrown out of a hotel tea room for mucking about with sugar cubes.

The more interesting bits of the story really happened before the film starts and aren't covered at all in the film...the family's move to South Africa, his mother's conversion to Catholicism and her Baptist family's decision to cut her off from all support as a result, the extraordinary education she must have given her two children at home...

Watched at the Vue in Stroud in a nearly-empty cinema, with annoying subtitles.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Review of The Post

Liberal film about the days when the mainstream media were the good guys, exposing the crimes and lies of the government, and focusing on the Washington Post's decision to publish The Pentagon Papers. Hard to believe that there was time when it was considered significant when the government was caught out lying or deliberately misleading the public, or that people believed that there would be consequences if this was revealed.

Bits of the films dragged for me, but it came to life towards the end with the decision to publish despite the fear of doing the wrong thing (endangering American lives by revealing details of war plans) or being prosecuted. It's about this point in the film that the pre-digital process of producing and distributing newspapers begins to dominate the imagery - typewriters, sub-editing by hand, vacuum capsules to take copy from editorial to typesetting, hot metal type...again, hard to believe that this was something in my lifetime.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of The Children Act

Another slow emotional film, with Emma Thompson as the judge who must decide whether to force a blood transfusion on an unwilling 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness boy who will otherwise die. Nice depiction of the dilemma, and great acting from all the cast. Screenplay by Ian McEwan who wrote the book, but very cinematic...lots of powerful close-ups.

Two really trivial thoughts. Firstly, we see the judge distracted and disengaged from her marriage, but she mainly does this by working late on her laptop. She has a smartphone but the only thing she does with it is make and receive phone calls...which is not the way that modern people really are disengaged and distracted; they spend all their time checking their phones and browsing social media, and so on. I know she's a bit old that for that but the taking phone calls thing felt wrong.

Secondly, there is a good supporting performance from Jason Watkins as the devoted and self-effacing judge's clerk. But I was really aware of the other actors' eyes in the film - Thompson's eyes, and the eyes of Fionn Whitehead who plays the boy, in particular. Jason Watkins has very distinctive dark eyes, that seem to be all black pupil, and I couldn't help noticing them and remembering his performance as the vampire policeman William Herrick in Being Human.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of Lucky

Slow film about an old guy in a small town in Arizona (I think) contemplating the closing stages of his life. He is remarkably well and mentally fit, though he smokes and drinks and lives alone. His life is pared down to the bare essentials, but he is content and positive about it all. He's never had a family, but he has his buddies and seems on good terms with lots of others in his community. He has no expectations of an afterlife or religious sentiments of any kind; there are a lot of shots of him walking around the fairly bleak little town, and in one of them he walks past a church...that's it, the only appearance of anything church-related in the film.

It's described as heart-warming and uplifting, and I can see why someone might think that, but my heart wasn't that much warmed or my spirit that much uplifted. If you've got to grow old and die alone, then this is a great depiction of the best way to do it, but I'm not sure that I want to think too much about the possibility that I will.

Watched at the Lansdown Film Club.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Review of 'The Art of Flying' by Antonio Altarriba

A clever, beautiful graphic novel about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, told through the eyes of an anarchist fighter who has a miserable middle age as an exile and then a returnee to Fascist Spain, and then a miserable old age in a home in newly 'democratic' Spain.

As that suggests there are not a lot of laughs and no happy ending. Even the part that describes the brief exhileration of the revolutionary period in Catalunya are pretty bleak - the revolution seems to be betrayed and corrupted even in its best moment.  And after the defeat the ex-comrades fall into criminality and backstabbing, first in France and then back in Spain.

I'm also not really sure how much I like graphic novels as a way of telling a story. I don't read them very often, and I think it's because although they can be beautiful, they don't allow me to use my own imagination - it all feels very prescriptive. I'm not sure exactly why that's different from say film, but it is.


Thursday, May 09, 2019

Review of 'Made in Belfast'

Quite a nice film, set in post-troubles (is that a bit premature) Belfast, about a writer who comes back for his unloved Dad's funeral and needs to reconcile with all of his old friends who's lives he ruined by putting them in his first book.

No fabulous cinematography, but nicely scripted and acted. The tone gradually lifts as the film progresses, though it beats me why Amazon has this categorised as a comedy. The poster doesn't capture the feeling of the film at all.

Watched on Amazon Prime, on the smart TV.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Review of 'The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future' by David Wallace-Wells

Great if bleak survey of current thinking and perspectives on climate change, this works well as a gateway to the literature. It's well-written and readable, even if - I understand - some critics think it's too gloomy and takes worse-case scenarios as central ones. Lots of links to other material, and to literature about others' reflections on the implications of climate change for politics, ethics and human history.

A great, awful, book...it has left me rather despondent. Most of the fixes proposed for climate change are much too little, too late - and most seem socially implausible even if they are technically possible. Were we to go for carbon capture and storage, for example, then building the machines to do it at the levels required for the Earth would seem to occupy most of the economic resources of civilisation. Sort of do-able in principle, but probably not in practice.

He doesn't make the link, but it rather reminded me of the Wittfogel stuff about 'hydraulic societies'...only a kind of bureaucratic despotism will be capable of re-organising society and the economy towards the permanent management of the atmosphere that we will be needed to ensure our survival as a civilisation. So whichever way you look at it the party - including not just consumerism but also a market economy and liberal democracy - is over.

Review of Moon Dogs

Quite decent Scottish road trip/coming of age story, with some beautiful scenery and decent acting. Nice music too, and good characters, well acted. Some scary violence scenes.

Note in passing: this was part funded by the Irish Film Board. Why? No Irish content or actors, as far as I could tell. What is it with Film Boards?

Watched via BBC iPlayer and Chromecast.

Review of Papadopous and Sons

Family saga comdedy drama, with some decent acting and cinematography, rather let down by a script that looks like it was rushed through and never even read properly. Lots of the dialogue is creaky, the characters behave in ways that is inconsistent and implausible - even the timeline is ropey. Sort of whatchable but not memorable.

Watched via BBC iPlayer and Chromecast.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Review of 'Mary Shelley'

I'm not sure this straightforward biopic of Mary Shelley/Wollstoncraft-Godwin is really necessary. It's not terrible, but I'm pretty sure I've seen most of this before - in Ken Russell's Gothic, but also elsewhere. Shelley is a bit of a shit, Byron is louche and predatory, Mary is a proto-feminist...

Watched via informal distribution and Chromecast.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Review of 'Mortal Engines'

I saw the trailer for this while standing in the foyer of the O2 cinema in Finchley Road on some sort of kiosk display thing, and wanted to see the film...I expected it would be a bit overblown but - from the trailer - visually exciting. I'd read the first book to Louis when he was little and was interested to see how they'd been realised.

Well, the film never seemed to turn up. It was released, flopped, and never seen again. Last week I wondered about what had happened, obtained a copy via informal distribution (with Korean subtitles, hardcoded) and watched it.

It was actually much better than expected - the look was great, and the acting and dialogue wasn't all that dire. Curiously I couldn't recall the plot at all from the book, but I read a synopsis later and it was quite faithful. A bit on the long side, and one or two rather Star-Wars moments, but quite watchable. Too bad there won't be a sequel.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review of Hector and The Search for Happiness

Quite enjoyable film with Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Some nice graphics and occasionally quite thoughtful - though at other times really a bit stupid (the Pegg character goes to 'Africa', and it matters so little that the country he is in doesn't even have a name, as if Africa is enough to locate and characterise it). Nice to see Toni Collette - I had no idea she was Australian, she seemed so British in Wanderlust.

It's based on a French novel, and I'm sort of wondering if that's worth reading.

Watched on Amazon Prime...don't think this saw the light of day anywhere else.

Review of Shoplifters

A really good but hard to watch Japanese film about a family of people at the bottom - making do through a mixture of petty theft, sex work, grifting, etc. There's child and other abuse going on too, though we don't actually see it; and lots of twists as the truth about the family and their relations to each other gradually become apparent.

I suspect that the film would have been much more shocking to a Japanese audience than it was to us - I think Japanese people are more law-abiding.

Watching this made me realise actually how ambivalent Western (well, UK and US) attitudes to petty crime are - although we like to think of ourselves as law-abiding and moral, we also tend to find petty crime (especially when the victim is an institution rather than a person) amusing rather than nasty...scammers and spivs are so often the 'heroes' of our comedies. Several recent American films (The Florida Project, Lean on Pete, etc) have also focused on people at the bottom, so that we're kind of familiar with the existence of this world, but I wonder whether a Japanese audience prefers not to think about it at all?

Watched at Lansdown Film Club in Stroud.

Review of "The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good"

I mainly enjoyed this - though as with a lot of popular non-fiction books, it's a bit bloated. I enjoyed especially the bits about office work and how awful and degrading it is, both for those who do it and those who have to manage it...rather reminiscent of David Graeber at his best, though not so analytical. His description of working in the abstracting business were unpleasantly familiar.

I could relate to that in a way that I couldn't to the bits about cleaning crankshafts and grinding manifolds, because I have never done such a thing in my life and probably won't ever now. I think his insights on employment and wages/renumeration are pretty good, and I'd urge young people thinking about going to uni to read this and think about what it says.

I didn't so much enjoy the author's thoughts on nationalism, globalisation and so on...it felt to me a bit like he was heading in a Trumpian direction, even though at the time he'd written it the rise of the populist right was still only a dark cloud on a distant horizon.  Some of his cultural preferences seem a bit that way too - was it really necessary to read 'Soldier of Fortune' to rebel against his liberal upbringing?

Time well spent, though.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Review of 'The Black Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel' by Benjamin Black

Finally got round to reading this - I'd been looking forward to it for a while, and I wasn't disappointed. Very well written, enjoyable - not a pastiche, just a continuation of the Marlowe character in his natural setting. That said, it's not Chandler; in some ways it's better - the plot is much tighter and makes more sense than The Big Sleep, for example. On the other hand, the style is a bit less gothic than Chandler's - there isn't the same strength of feeling or atmosphere in the places that there is in his writing.

There's a slightly more modern sensibility - while one of the gay characters is sleazy and unpleasant, there's another minor character who is probably gay and nice with it. I think Marlowe is rather more intellectual here than he was in Chandler's novels.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Review of "Fisherman's Friends"

Clearly intended as a community-oriented feelgood sort of film, with roughty-toughty fisherman singing shanties as they haul in their nets. Their local culture seems to be devoid of every other type of music except authentic folk, which already identifies this as a fairy tale...every time I visit a pub in a place like that the singer is always country and western.

Anyway, it's nice enough, and pleasant to look at, but at least half an hour too long, and with just a bit too many plot elements for its weight.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Review of 'Under the Rainbow'

Actually a quirky French romcom sort of film, with lots of fairy tale allusions and allegories. A bit of Little Red Riding Hood, some Sleeping Beauty, and several others. I was a bit confused at first because there are really a lot of characters, and some seem to have multiple relationships with each other. But it was actually quite funny once I got the hang of it, with lots of nice images.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via Chromecast.

Review of 'Lord Malquist and Mr Moon' by Tom Stoppard

He should definitely stick to plays. This is a pile of crap, and I gave up after 30 pages. This still has the remaindered sticker on it (reduced from £6.99 to £1.99) and it's going straight to the charity shop.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Review of 'The Colour' by Rose Tremain

Another fine novel from Rose Tremain. Great characters, nicely constructed, beautiful nature descriptions, a good feel for historical context. Not a happy feel-good sort of book - lots of unhappiness - but no less good for that.

Lots of nice detail about the mechanics of a gold rush, and something about the presence of Chinese migrants in it.

I think it's particularly good in representing the other-worldly feeling of New Zealand, which I remember from my short trip there in the late 1980s. Hard to characterize exactly, but I think it comes from NZ having a temperate latitude much like North Western Europe, but very different species of animals and plants...so it feels like a weird, imperfect copy of Britain.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review of 'Cold War'

Beautiful, well paced drama (romantic drama?) set in post-war Poland, and then post-war Europe, and featuring a young woman singer and her sometime piano-playing teacher and lover. Lots of atmosphere, and shots that look like they have been meticulously composed by a visual artist.

It is a bit Cold War, though - it really emphasises the oppressiveness and bureaucratic hypocrisy of the East versus the freedom of the West. When our hero escapes and ends up in Paris the first scene shows him playing cool jazz in a band with black players...it's unsaid that those black players would have been in Paris to escape segregation and racial violence back home. And also that this 'free' Paris was the capital of a country still practising violent militarised colonialism across the Mediterranean, or that in this very city hundreds of Algerian protesters were about to be murdered in a single day by a racist police force headed by a Vichy-era collaborator and torturer later convicted of crimes against humanity. When people 'chose' the West or the East they were choosing a lesser evil, not the good guys vs. the bad.

This doesn't detract from the film, of course. I was a bit put out by the ending, which didn't seem to me to fit with what had gone before, but I'll refrain from a spoiler.

Watched at Lansdown Film Club as part of Stroud Film Festival.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Review of 'The White Crow'

I enjoyed this Rudolph Nuryev biopic (well, really a story about the events leading up to his defection, with some earlier background) more than I expected to...film is obviously the right way to enjoy ballet, which up until now has bored me rigid, but seemed really beautiful and inspiring in this. Ralph Fiennes is great with his melancholy expressions, and I thought the art direction - the haircuts, the furniture, the sets - was great. My, didn't everybody smoke a lot?

I did have a little doze in the middle, but I thought it was quite enjoyable.

One small gripe - did the flashbacks to the earlier period in the USSR really have to be in black and white?

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Review of 'The Aftermath'

A romantic drama set in Hamburg and environs immediately after the end of the war, amidst ruins and some diehard Nazi resistance to the British occupation forces. Surprisingly good, especially in the light of the bad reviews, and the fact that the female lead is Keira Knightley - though she is good in this, because her rather wooden style suits the emotionally constricted character she is playing.

Watching it I felt once again that the trauma of what British people suffered in WW2 has been largely unacknowedged, compared to what is understood to have happened to other Europeans in that war, or even the British in WW1. I'm thinking particularly of the civilians who survived the bombing - nowadays anyone who gets their phone stolen is offered counselling (at least I was a few years ago), but those who went through every night not knowing if they would survive were expected to pick themselves up and get on with it, during the war and afterwards.

Also struck by what a good job the Allies made of re-making Germany, compared to what a bad job they made of re-making Iraq. Has anyone written about this?

Watched at the Everyman Cinema - once again offering free cocktails. This is obviously the future of the cinema experience.

Review of 'A Gentleman in Moscow' by Amor Towles

I really enjoyed this book, and then I watched the video of the author speaking about it, and now I feel a bit like I've been had, and that I shouldn't have liked it as much as I did.

It's set in Russia, and the eponymous hero is a very sympathetic and charming ex-noble who is sentenced to life imprisonment in a luxury hotel. He's not executed after the revolution by the victorious Bolsheviks because he'd earlier written a poem that inspired the revolutionary generation of 1905. The book is about how he makes the best of life in the hotel - the friends (and enemies) he makes, but also what he eats and drinks - over almost forty years.

It's beautifully written, and it's hard not to like the Count, who is a really nice person, kind and thoughtful and not at all arrogant...and I suppose that's my problem. It's an anti-Bolshevik, anti-socialist book - one of the themes is the way that hierarchy and patronage are inevitable features of any society. It's not as if I am a big fan of the Bolsheviks, let alone of how things turned out with their revolution. But there is not even a hint that not all was well with the Tsarist regime in Russia, though there is a tiny suggestion that the immediate post-revolutionary period was at least fluid and exciting. Almost all the actual Communists in the book are horrid, and most of the nice people are their victims. And I sort of feel that I've been had, that I've been seduced by an aristocrat with his delightful manners and his wit...learning that Amory Towles is a former investment banker makes it worse.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

It’s easy to laugh at conspiracy theorists. They often seem like harmless nutters. It’s good fun to swap stories about people who believe that the moon landings were faked, the Vatican is hiding information that proves Christianity is false, the US government is concealing the technologies it has obtained from crashed alien UFOs, or that big business is keeping the wraps on perpetual motion machines, water engines and everlasting light bulbs.

Conspiracy theories tend to share a number of themes. These include the involvement of the rich and powerful, and a cover-up of important truths that would undermine wealth and power. Apparently disparate phenomena are actually connected. The crimes of the powerful are not just evil and self-interested, but lurid and repellent; they don’t just have sex orgies, they have orgies involving satanic rituals and kidnapped children. And despite the fact that the rich and powerful have successfully covered up whatever it is they have done (sometimes for hundreds of years), they’ve inadvertently left clues that have allowed a small band of fearless and dedicated investigators to discover the truth and to publicise it, if only anyone would listen…

No-one illustrates this better than David Icke, the former footballer and sports commentator turned New Age guru turned conspiracy theorist. Icke reveals the existence of a massive, long-running conspiracy that has lasted for thousands of years. This involves most politicians that you’ve ever heard of, the British and several other royal families, plus conspiracy favourites the United Nations, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Rothschild family, the World Bank, and so on.

Unsurprisingly he is obsessed with Georg Soros, who he cites as a ‘kingpin’ of the Deep State, the New World Order, and part of the ‘motley crew’ of Zionists and others responsible for fake news and worldwide protests. When Icke presents he uses a giant portrait of Soros, unconvincingly photo-shopped to look like he has reptile eyes.

As well as mixing in some ‘alternative medicine’ stuff, and support for ‘free speech’ for Holocaust denial, Icke cites the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a source, though he claims that the references in the book to Jews are actually coded clues to the real conspirators, an alien race of shapeshifting lizards who have interbred with humans. Well, it makes a change from coded references to Jews.

So mockery and amused tolerance seems an appropriate response. Why dignify this mish-mash of unbelievable untruths and shameless plagiarism from pulp science fiction by treating it seriously? Some don’t. ‘Rationalist’ debunkers characterise Icke as more nutty than antisemitic, taking at face value his coy and half-hearted denials of antisemitism, including references to ‘Rothschild Zionism’ and assertions that it’s only ‘some’ Jews that are involved in the conspiracy.

Nevertheless, it’s a more significant phenomenon than many on the left recognize. Icke rakes in millions from his books, and draws large audiences at his rally-like talks. It’s easy to assume that no-one with half a brain could be taken in by any of this; the rise of Trump should make us aware that this is not so. It’s always been possible to live in a parallel ‘cultural universe’, refusing to admit as valid mainstream assertions and beliefs. Frankly, that’s what many of us on the left have of necessity done for years, though thankfully not with the same content. The internet has made this easier, as have changes in the structure of the mass media to allow for more explicitly partisan channels like Fox News. It’s easier than ever to construct an intellectual world in which you only see and hear hear evidence that corroborates your core beliefs. The rest of us stay sealed off from these worlds.

Or perhaps we aren’t. In December 2018 Alice Walker, the distinguished Black author and activist, cited Icke’s book “And the Truth Shall Set You Free,” as ‘on her nightstand’ in an interview with the New York Times, and subsequently defended the recommendation and praised Icke as “brave enough to ask the questions others fear to ask, and to speak his own understanding of the truth wherever it might lead.”

It’s not hard to find other examples of people praising Icke for his ‘brave’ views on Israel and Palestine; a few minutes with a search engine will turn up lots of them. Sometimes such praise is embedded in other stuff that’s critical of American imperialism, the banks, and the super-rich. Surprisingly, although Icke belongs on the lunatic fringe of the far right, it’s not all that uncommon to find left-wing friends sharing some of his blander, more mainstream pronouncements. (I note in passing that Icke appears to despise Tommy Robinson as an agent of Israel and ‘Zionist Terrorism’.)

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. There is no clear boundary between conspiracy theories and...well, theories about conspiracies. On the left we understand that the media often lies and distorts to serve political ends, and that the rich and powerful cover up their crimes. We know that states agencies really do engage in clandestine activities. Lots of things that sound rather like conspiracy theories have turned out to be true, including some of the weirdest and most fantastic; try searching for ‘Rawalpindi Experiments’, or Project MK Ultra. I don’t know of any compelling evidence that either the CIA or Mossad carried out the 9-11 attacks, but there really have been false flag operations carried out by the US, the British and Israel (and other states). For the most part the rich and powerful don’t manage their domination of political institutions through secret societies and targeted assassinations, but sometimes they do - spend a little time researching the history of the ‘Propaganda Due’ (P2) organisation in Italy and elsewhere.

Engagement with opposition to the actions of Israel seems to lead inexorably to this murky domain. The Israeli state really has often engaged in clandestine operations, both at home and abroad. Israel, like other states, including the Saudis - maintains lobbyists in Washington, Westminster, Brussels and a host of other capitals. There are also networks of non-state organisations that act in support of Israel and/or political parties and movements within Israel - especially the settlers and the extreme right. Many of the participants in these networks are Jews (though in the US Evangelical Christians are increasingly important within pro-Israel lobby organisations). So it’s not too hard for critics of Israel and Zionism to use language and images that either derives from, or overlaps with, classical antisemitic conspiracy theories. And when they come across someone else who appears to share their antipathy to Israel’s machinations, and who is persecuted or attacked for their views...well, why not click that ‘share’ button?

So where does this leave us? What do we do about our friends and comrades who think that Icke’s “exposes” of Zionism and “the elite” actually sound quite sensible? Well, you can start by telling them about Icke’s views on other things - the reptile overlords, or ‘alternative medicine’, or free speech for Holocaust deniers. But - as Alice Walker’s refusal to disavow Icke suggests, don’t get your hopes up. People come into the left in all sorts of ways, and from different directions. Lots of young people have never heard of The Protocols, and may not understand why someone who appears to be against the banks, the ‘elite’ and the US government may nevertheless be an enemy rather than a friend. In the end there’s no substitute for a proper, class-based analysis of wealth and power; in the short term it’s necessary, if nonetheless exhausting, to keep pointing out the real allegiances of these false friends.





Monday, March 04, 2019

Review of 'Three Identical Strangers'

Documentary about the experiments on adopted-away twins (and, in the case of the main characters in the film, triplets) carried out by psychoanalyst researchers in conjunction with a Jewish adoption agency. There is a lot of anger on the part of the research subjects, because they were separated in early life and neither they nor their adoptive parents were told that they had siblings.

Research like this couldn't be done now, but I think the researchers at the time didn't have any sense at all that they had breached any ethical or moral boundary...though the extent to which they subsequently tried to keep what they'd done covered up suggests that they worked out pretty quickly that not everyone else would feel the same way.

As a film it's actually a bit long, with a lot of the developments being drawn out longer than necessary for the sake of the narrative. But it's compelling to watch.

Seen on All4 catch up.

Review of 'Tehran Taboo'

Striking animated film about contemporary Iranian life, with emphasis on what it's like to be a woman subject to the arbitrary regime of the Morality Police and the Revolutionary Guard, but also on the corruption and hypocrisy. Not an easy watch, and a bit slow to get going, but worth the effort.

Watched at Lansdown Film Club in Stroud.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Review of 'The Prairie Home Companion'

Shapeless Robert Altman film (his last) but quite good fun nevertheless. The radio station where Garrison Keillor does his rambling radio show has been taken over by evil unsentimental Texans, who are going to close the show and sell the theatre for a parking lot...even though it's beautiful and seems to be ram packed with people. So the cast get together for what is going to be their last show, and that show is what the film is...lots of cameo roles, rambling conversations, and lots of singing from Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Lyndsay Lohan, etc. They must have had lots of fun making it, and it was easy to watch.

Watched on an old fashioned DVD player at Michael's cottage in Stibb, with a pre-HDMI scart connection.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review of 'Harold and Maude'

I can't believe I've never got round to seeing this before. It's a classic, and though it's old it's really funny and also quite thoughtful...about the relationship between an unhappy young man and a bonkers older woman, who meet because their mutual hobby is to go to strangers' funerals (which rather reminded me of Fight Club, where the Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham-Carter characters meet because they go to support groups for conditions that they don't have).

Hard to say much more without spoilers, but well worth seeing; a soundtrack by Cat Stevens that made me really nostalgic too.

Watched via Chromecast and Chromestream, having obtained via informal distribution.

Review of 'The Breaker Upperers'

A fish and chip supper of a film - you know it's really not very good for you, but it's still enjoyable. Or rather, since this is a New Zealand comedy, perhaps it's a fsh and chp spper.

The idea is that two women run an agency that helps people break up from their partners when they don't have the guts to do it themselves - sort of a bit like the agency in the stupid French romcom Heartbreaker.

But this is funnier than that was. It's quite on racism/antiracism and bi/sexuality, and there are some really quite good jokes here and there.

Watched on Netflix, because it's a Netflix original. Which is funny, because though NZ seems to be turning out quite a few decent quirky comedies lately, this is surely of most interest to kiwis, which is a sort of limited market.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review of 'Ex Machina'

I've been meaning to watch this for a long time - what with being 'Ex Machina' myself - but somehow never quite managed to get round to it, perhaps because I thought Ruth wouldn't want to watch it and we mainly watch films together.

In fact she would have liked it. It's science fiction, but it's slow but interesting and thoughtful, with a claustrophobic feel despite the beautiful landscapes and modernist interiors. Lots of plot twists and revelations, and interesting emotional and intellectual elements.

Watched via USB stick and informal distribution on new clever TV.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Review of The Hunting Rug by Gabor Gorgey

Quite a difficult book, with a narrative that darts about in time and lots of Hungarian history - not all that many novels have footnotes, do they?

Good though - moody and thoughtful, with lots of understated descriptions of the post-war Communist regime.

Reading it I became aware, once again, how distinct and different Hungary seems; I'm pretty good on European history and yet most of the history in it is completely unfamiliar. I didn't even know about the siege of Budapest or the fighting in the city. I was also confused about the description of Romanian soldiers in the siege - I hadn't realised that Romania had swapped sides during 1944.

Review of 'The Whole Wide World'

A film about the love affair between Novalyne Price Ellis and Robert E Howard, the author of the Conan books.

Sort of long and slow, set in 1930s Texas with little context about what was going on in the US or the wider world at that time. The young Renee Zellwegger is good, but the film is a bit dull.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Review of 'Merivel' by Rose Tremain (sorry, spoiler alert)

A rather different book from 'Restoration', even though it continues with the same first-person narrator as is obviously a sequel. Much of it is enjoyably dull - it contrives not to leave the reader in suspense for any length of time as any plot elements that might cause tension seem to be very swiftly resolved. I didn't much mind that...it's nice to have a break from the emotional rollercoaster, and the writing is still beautiful.

The last 50 pages completely confound that, though. There is a very sad and bleak ending, with everything that has been restored to Merivel, and everything that gives him happiness, being taken away. Not the worse for that, but an abrupt change of tone.

Review of 'Wajib'

Palestinian film, set in Nazareth (i.e. within the 'Green Line' of pre-1967 Israel), depicting the relationship between a father and an emigre architect son who has returned briefly for his sister's wedding and is now helping his father to hand-deliver the invitations.

Lots going on in the film - fathers and sons, diaspora Palestinians vs those who stayed put, traditional obligations and how they appear to those who've left. It's not an explicitly political film, but there are lots of signs of the petty humiliations and constraints to which Palestinians in Israel are subject, despite their apparent 'full citizenship'.

Slow and claustrophobic, but very well made - interesting that the two main actors actually are father and son.

Watched at Stroud Film Club.

Review of 'Eye In The Sky'

A well-made film intended to illustrate that 'we' (the good guys, the West) don't just carry out a massive program of long-distance targeted assassination but that we think very hard about each killing, and that it really pains us when there is collateral damage, and there is more than sufficient democratic oversight of the program.

The film worked dramatically (it spins out the decision-making about one killing for more than 90 minutes without dragging) but I was not convinced. The moral dilemma presented (is it OK to allow one sweet little girl to die in order to save many more lives?) was not a very hard one, and the fabulous technology shown in the film (some of which doesn't actually exist, though it is presented as contemporary) means that the decision-makers have all the information that they need - arguably too much information to make their choices easy.

Also didn't like the way that the military figures are presented as both clear-headed and caring but the politicians are all to varying degrees cowardly and vile, and only concerned about how this will look.

Watched on live terrestrial TV (Film4) as it was broadcast - first time I've done that for a while.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Review of 'Green Book'

An enjoyable liberal anti-racist film, in which a working-class Italian man with prejudices against Black people (in an early scene we see him subtly throwing away two glasses that Black maintenance men have drunk from) is contracted to be a driver to a patrician Black musician on a tour of the early 1960s Deep South. Their personal relationship develops, the stuck-up Black guy lets down his hair a bit (this is a film that's a little bit about class as well as race) and they end up buddies. The Italian guy sticks up for the Black musician in the face of Southern Racism, and they become friends.

A feel-good film that's about something important, even though it doesn't actually say much that's important.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill, where they gave us free cocktails at the beginning of the film. Wish they'd turn the heating up a bit though.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Review of 'A Tall Man in a Low Land' by Harry Pearson

Surprisingly enjoyable book about a couple's holiday in Belgium. Pearson is very interested in sport (and I'm not) but he still manages to make the book really interesting. There are some self-consciously 'funny' bits that I'd have edited out, but overall it is actually quite funny and makes Belgium seem interesting, even exotic. He did rather make me want to take a trip.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Review of 'Greenfingers'

Nice British comedy about prisoners who take up gardening with the encouragement of a TV celebrity gardener played by Helen Mirren. Redemption through growing plants, that sort of thing. No surprises but quite watchable.

Watched on Netflix.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review of "Even When I Fall"

Film about children trafficked from Nepal to Indian circuses - a big thing, it turns out, mainly sold by their parents in the belief that they are doing the right thing. The early part of the film is quite confusing; the children are 'rescued' by Indian social workers/NGO staff (it wasn't clear to me which) and police, and returned to Nepal to be re-united with their families. The families mainly say that they've regretted selling their children south ever since, though I couldn't help feeling that's what they would say to a documentarist's camera.

After that the film takes off as the kids - who miss their circus life - establish their own Nepalese circus with a purpose, to provide a role for the formerly-trafficked and to make anti-trafficking propaganda. The children themselves, and the young adults they grow into during the course of the film, and very beautiful, and so are the shots of them doing their acts.

Watched from Amazon Prime via laptop and new projector in the Common House at Springhill Cohousing.

Review of 'Io'

Bleak and sometimes beautiful dystopian film, set on an earth which has become inhospitable to life as a result of some unexplained change in the atmosphere...and from which most humans have departed to a space station in orbit round Jupiter's moon IO as part of an 'exodus' programme.

Lots of it looks like 'Life After People' - ruined cities overtaken by plants, and so on. The action centres round whether a surviving young woman scientist, and a slightly older man who arrives by Helium balloon, should leave Earth on the last rocket shuttle or stay behind - she's the daughter of a scientist who advised that Earth could be made habitable again.

So there's not actually much action at all - some talking, a lot of silences, and some dream and memory sequences. It does drag a bit in places, and I did have the odd little doze without apparently missing much. It's quite effective, although I would have preferred it if the disaster that has happened was related to the one that we are actually facing - runaway climate change.

Watched on Netflix - another Netflix Original.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review of "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened"

A slightly over-long but fascinating documentary, spent in the company of some of the most obnoxious people you will ever meet. 'Entrepreneur' Billy McFarland is setting up some soft of artist-booking app, and decides to launch a parallel co-branded exclusive luxury festival. He promotes the festival by getting loathsome pointless celebrities (supermodels, rappers, etc) to have a party on the designated festival site and then using the celebrity-party shoot footage to get wannabe-celebrities drooling.

This works really well, only Billy doesn't really organise the festival. The site is unsuitable, the artists aren't really coming, there isn't nearly enough accommodation on the island (promoted as Pablo Escobar's Bahamian hide-out), or enough water or sewerage capacity. The pics of the site are photoshopped so that it looks like an uninhabited island, even though it's actually right next door to the Sandals resort. Whenever the hapless minions point out to Billy that things aren't working out, he hops on his jetski/quad bike and goes really fast, and then tells them to bring him solutions, not problems. Some of the minions walk, but most don't, and some kick in their own money in an effort to keep the festival show on the road a bit longer.

There is footage of the miserable millenials arriving at the site, where they are plied with tequila so that by the time they discover that there are no luxury villas (and not even food or water) it's dark and they are all drunk and confused. They begin to fight over the tents and bedding, because there aren't enough of either. And the next day they get airlifted out like refugees, their dreams of partying with supermodels crushed.

Along the way we discover that Billy is even more of a scumbag, because he's defrauded investors to the tune of $27m, telling them that the festival had many more punters than it ever could have, and that they were all paying even more money than the ludicrous amounts he had actually extorted from the suckers.

Eventually the FBI turn up and Billy is indited, though while he is out on bail he starts a whole new scam selling tickets to events that he doesn't have, through a young front-man.

It's tempting to conclude that all the idiots who were motivated to go to a festival on the strength of some supermodel tweets got what they deserved, and that people who invested in trash like this also...but plenty of others were also burned, including the day labourers on the island who worked for a month trying to prepare the site and never got paid. And the poor sods who were working on the app, who weren't even fired - Billy just tells them they won't get paid any more after he pulls the plug.

Billy got six years, but he'll probably only serve two, and that in a country club prison.

Watched on Netflix - it's a Netflix Original.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Review of 'The Underground Railroad'

Absolutely amazing alternative-history novel about slavery in the US, including a fantasy that the 'underground railroad', the smuggling route by which escaping slaves were assisted to reach freedom in the North (and eventually in Canada, after the Fugitive Slaves Act made escape to the northern US impossible) is a real railroad that runs underground from South to North, with tunnels and trains and secret stations...

Because I'm not as familiar with the details of American racism, slavery, lynch law and so on, it's sometimes hard to tell which aspects of the story form part of real history and which are part of the alternate narrative. I'd have quite liked a sort of guide to that for the less well informed reader - which I suspect includes most Americans as well as non-Americans.

None of that detracts from the book, which is terrifying and beautifully written. Looking forward to reading more by Colson Whitehead.