Thursday, September 23, 2021

Review of 'Eaten By Lions'

Nice British film about...well, quite a lot really. Two half brothers are brought up by their gran after their parents die in a freak ballooning accident in which they land in a safari park and are eaten by lions. One boy is brown and of Asian origin - his mum had a seaside fling but the dad of the other boy brings him up as his own - and the other brother is disabled. Then the gran dies, and an aunt wants to adopt the white brother but not the brown one, who goes off in search of his biological father. Lots more plot, and lots more issues.

Funny, sad, thoughtful, clever. More films like this please.

Watched on BBC iPlayer.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Review of The Mauritanian

A while ago I watched a documentary about the too-close relationship between Hollywood and the US military...I'd sort of suspected that the military cooperated with movie makers in exchange for help, but I hadn't appreciated the extent or the depth of the involvement...changing story lines even in science fiction films, for example. 

Well, I don't suppose the makers of this film got much cooperation. There are few punches pulled in the depiction of the US military's cruelty and caprice. We see torture and abuse of prisoners, much of it gratituitous, and some of it vile and porn-inspired. And it goes on way past any possible military or intelligence benefit, partly to cover arses and save higher-ups from embarassment. And the Obama administration did not behave better than its predecessors. 

It's a legal drama, with lots of stuff about release of documents, and privilege of counsel and so on, but it's well-made and well acted. I don't want to say more about just how well made because that'll spoil some of the film for anyone who reads it...but this is well worth watching.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Review of Wild Bill

Gritty London-based crime and family drama, in which a rather deadbeat dad comes out of prison to find his two young sons living a precarious life in a tower-block council flat because their mum has abandoned them and moved to Spain with a new boyfriend. The dad is a hard man - the wild Bill of the title - but not much good for or at anything else, though he's not really a bad person. He tries to be a father to the boys, but they've been managing without him and are more than a little suspicious, except that they need him to pretend to be around or they'll be taken into care and split up.

There's a lot in this film, including the way that the authorities - even the ones that we think of as the good ones, like local authority social workers - manage the underclass. And the way that drug dealing looks like an attractive career option to kids with no other prospects. And how hard it is for ex-cons to move beyond their old circles when they come out.

It's from 2011, and the construction of the Olympic Village (where the older boy is working, illegally because he's too young) sets it at a precise moment in time. So does the mum going off to Spain, which couldn't happen post-Brexit. In every other respect it looks bang up to date...nothing else seems to make it dated, not the clothes or the phones.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of "People Places Things"

Quite nice film about a NZ man living in NY, in the process of separating from his partner and mother of his cute twin daughters, and trying to be a good dad despite his catastrophically bad organisation and life skills. Some humour, some poignancy. Absolutely no connection to the play with a very similar name that was harrowing but much, much better.

Watched on Netflix

Friday, September 03, 2021

Review of Salting The Battlefield

A sort of spy/conspiracy thriller that ought to be good, but really isn't. Lots of good actors, directed by David Hare, but a half-assed script and a plot that doesn't really make much sense except in a very general conspiracy sort of way. Ralph Fiennes is the Blair-like PM who has connections to dodgy US financiers and torture networks, and Bill Nighy is a sort of rogue MI5/MI6 agent who is trying to bring him down...but it's not really clear why, or who is pulling the strings behind him. Lots of running across nice-looking locations in Europe, put together in ways that seem OK at the time but don't stand up to much reflection. Dubious politics, in that it's the security services and the press who eventually get rid of the PM, or rather allow him to resign to take a new and better job...there's no actual politics at all, not in Parliament, much less in the streets. 

Watched on Netflix.

Review of 'Victus' by Albert Sánchez Piñol

A surprisingly good novel about the 1714 siege of Barcelona. I set out to read this as background 'research' for the third book in my Ferenc Marlowe series, because it seemed like it would be easier reading than a history of the War of the Spanish Succession. In fact it turned out to be much better than I expected, and I also learned quite enough about the war itself. It starts out in what I think is the picaresque genre, with quite a bit of slapstick and knockabout humour, but gradually becomes more serious. I don't like war stories all that much, but this is well written and emotionally connecting, at the same time providing a lot of detail about the mechanics of the siege and the politics of C18th Catalonia.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Review of “Labour's Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It” by David Renton

The last few years have not been fun for a lot of Jewish socialists. No sooner had the Labour Party - which some of us had written off as a vehicle for political change - unexpectedly elected an actual socialist as its leader, than we were deluged with a flood of accusations that the man, who had a long history of involvement in anti-racist struggles, was actually racist towards Jews. 

A series of unfortunate events followed, and the responses to them became factionalised and also poisonous. It seemed almost impossible to assert that there was some truth on both sides of the many arguments - that the left generally, the left in the Labour Party, and the party itself really did have a problem with antisemitism and that at the same time there were unscrupulous people within and outside Labour who were “weaponising” this problem to attack the left in the party and Labour itself. And others who used the opportunity to attack anyone who’d ever tried to criticise Israel or Zionism.

David Renton gives a detailed account of many of the incidents and episodes...the Mear One mural, Naz Shah, Ken Livingstone’s Hitler outburst, Jackie Walker and the slave trade, IHRA definition, the Chakrabarti report, the EHRC investigation and its report...He’s a lawyer by profession, and this is reflected in the detail and also in the sometimes legalistic discussion; he refers to specific elements of anti-discrimination legislation and applies them to what actually occurred.. But despite this he remains resolute that no set of rules and procedures could have saved the day - what was needed, and still is, is a proper political understanding of antisemitism and its place in political culture.

The author is at great pains to be fair to the people he is writing about, and gives them the most sympathetic interpretation possible of what they said or meant to say. He does this with Jackie Walker, with Ken Livingstone, with Chris Williamson...and sometimes it feels like he’s just trying too hard, and that what he ought to be doing is blasting these people for wallowing in the fetid pools on the outskirts of political culture. He does the same with Luciana Berger, the JLM-supporting MP who I never had much time for, and who became a bitter enemy of the left.


He’s mainly kind to Jon Lansman, who emerges as something of a hero from the narrative, and he’s nicer to the JLM than I would have been, even though I know some people who are members and are actually quite decent. He’s even kind to the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, treating his thoughts on Corbyn as if they were part of a considered and intellectually coherent commentary.


And he has a sensible, balanced approach to what Zionism means to Palestinians, and what it means to middle-of-the-road British Jews, which is not the same thing at all.


There are some things - inevitably - that don’t make it into the book. The various episodes involving Ken Loach, stretching all the way back to the ‘Perdition’ affair. The way that Corbyn himself, and his supporters, seemed unable to issue any condemnation of antisemitism without immediately adding “and all forms of racism”...a verbal tick which some have compared to the “All Lives Matter” racist response to Black Lives Matter. The often-repeated assertion that “our movement has a proud history” of antiracism, which is both untrue and irrelevant. 


But there is lots more about the present conjuncture...the failures of the Jewish Communal leader in the UK - unlike their American counterparts - to address the antisemitism of the right. The characteristics of the Corbyn moment, including the influx of people who’d never been involved in politics before and the left’s inability to absorb them. The political culture of the left, and the nastiness of online communication and social media in general. And the strangeness of the political culture of the broader ‘movement’, which includes a huge swathe of people who identify with some sort of anti-establishment feeling, manifest this by a willingness to believe in multiple and sometimes contradictory conspiracy theories about ‘the elite’, and are ripe for harvesting by the far right even if they don’t think of themselves as any kind of facist. Anyone who has found themselves in a conversation with an anti-vaxxer, or a believer in 5G conspiracies, will recognise this and welcome Renton’s sensible discussions about what this means for us.

I’ve never met David Renton, though I’ve enjoyed reading his blog posts. We’ve exchanged a few messages via Facebook, mainly me telling him that I’ve appreciated something he’s written. But I wish I’d known him during the period that his book covers; it might have made it easier to live through the misery.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Review of "Caliban and The Witch" by Sylvia Federici

A Stroud Radical Reading Group book. I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of Federici before, because she's great. A brilliant Marxist-feminist account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the way that this shaped the different roles of men and women in the total world that capitalism created. One of the great things about it is the focus on the relationship between 'production' - making stuff in what capitalism considers productive industry - and 'reproduction' - all the things that have to go on so that there is labour power to be exploited in that industry...things like food preparation, cleaning, childcare and child-rearing, care for the weak and sick. She argues that under feudalism the distinction between production and reproduction was not so sharp, with much production taking place within the sphere of the household, just like reproduction.

I have to say that there are things that I didn't like so much about the book. I think that she's oddly weak on the actual events and progress of the witch hunts which are one of the main focuses of the book. I'm no expert, but a quick bit of reading about the witch trials in Germany (for example in Trier) suggests a very different picture to the one that she describes - men, and children, executed en masse for witchcraft, prominent intellectuals standing up against the trials (and being executed as a result), men of property falling victim to the witch hunters. It's not at all a matter of old women with knowledge of herbs living on the margins of village society. 

I also suspect that she is not entirely right on the question of whether capitalist forms did, or didn't, develop within the belly of feudalism. She sets herself against this argument, advanced by Braudel, and to make a political point by lots of others including Paul Mason, Kevin Carson, Michel Bauwens and so on...it's an argument that informs others about the possibility of transition to socialism. She emphasises the violence with which capitalism was imposed - enclosures, witch-hunts, and so on, whereas the others emphasise the extent to which capitalist relations emerged without an 'overthrow' of feudalism. And she is keener than orthodox Marxists on the possibility that there might have been another route out of feudalism, one based in the resistance of peasants and townsfolk to their masters. I think that others have also suggested this (Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down, for example). I keep an open mind on this (for all the difference that it makes) but the possibility that it's only capitalism that can develop the forces of production sufficiently to provide a material basis for proper communism doesn't seem to me to be self-evidently wrong.

But it's still a great book, and I want to read more by her.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Review of "We''ll take Manhattan"

OK film about David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton going to New York on Vogue's budget and making themselves famous, despite the best efforts of the Vogue staffers sent to mind them. Really good soundtrack of early 1960s Jazz, nice art direction and clothes and interiors, less good script and everything else.

Weirdly this film triggered a very powerful dream about corporate life, in which - like the David Bailey character in the film - I stood up to corporate bullies and told them that the report that I had written was theirs, and they could do what they wanted with it, but if they removed or watered down my key conclusion they would have to take my name of it...braver than I was in real corporate life, of course. Even more weirdly, my bravery was undermined by a typical piece of dream anxiety, in that I was about to storm out when I realised I couldn't find my overcoat or remember where I'd put it. Everyone had these fabulous blue wool overcoats, and I had one too, only I couldn't remember which cloakroom I'd put it in. I still had the tag, but it didn't provide any clues. Huh...

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of Ammonite

Worthy, beautifully filmed, but a bit dull biopic of Mary Anning, the early-Victorian working class fossil hunter who laid the basis for so much paleontology and earth science. Spiced up with a lesbian love story between Anning and her real-life friend Charlotte Murchison, that doesn't seem to figure in any of the biographical material I've read. This is nicely acted, and the way that the relationship is depicted is non-obvious....though I did wonder how Anning, who doesn't seem to have had any sexual involvement before this, seems to know exactly what to do.

Watched on Amazon Prime...the first film we paid for there for a long time.

Review of "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir

I sort of liked this...well, I read through 476 pages so it carried me along. It's hard science fiction, with lots of detailed descriptions of how things work, and lots of science...some of which I skimmed. In that it's a lot like Andy Weir's other book, The Martian, which I also sort of liked. 

Basic plot is that an alien virus is eating the sun, and our hero is on the one last desperate effort to find a cure. And he's alone, because the other astronauts died before he awoke from his induced space-travel coma.

No spoilers here, but I felt the end made it worth ploughing through some of the earlier material, and the sentiments and even the politics are mainly good. Not top of my recommend list, but enjoyable all the same.