Sunday, July 03, 2022

Review of Drumline

A film about the world of American college marching bands - specifically the bands of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. These are wonderful and terrible at the same time - amazing to look at, but part of a culture of dedication and discipline that is utterly alien to any British sensibility, even the British brass band sensibility, which has its own different culture of dedication, discipline and competitiveness. The band members are athletes as much as they are musicians, and the training is quasi-military and very physical. In the film at least they seem to spend more time doing physical exercise than practicing either their music or their moves.

Watching this was very much part of my covid experience - when I couldn't be bothered to do much else I could watch lots of American college marching band videos, which were sort of inspiring but also very very weird.

This is as much a sport movie as a music film...will the main character make the team? How will the rivalries between competing band be resolved, and who will win the title? 

Watched via informal distribution.

Review of Drumline: A New Beat


Surely enough with the American college marching bands now. This is a sequel to Drumline, set years later, but surprisingly little has changed in the world of the A and T marching band, or in the plot. Again someone (this time a young woman) joins the band's drummers, and there's a lot of will-she/won't-she be picked for the all important P1 grade that gets her to play at public perfomances. And the rivalries within and between bands, and so on. I liked the actual perfomance scenes, the rest of it was a bit dull for me.

Watched via informal distribution.

Review of "The Donation of Constantine" by Simon LeVay

This is not great literature, but it's an enjoyable historical novel about an unfashionable and murky episode in the history of the Roman Catholic church. The Donation of Constantine was (is?) a document forged in the early Middle Ages which appeared to underwrite the temporal power of the Pope. Even at the time some people thought it was dodgy, but it became accepted as a genuine document because it was so convenient. The book is not, to my mind, absolutely clear where it stands on this - some of the characters clearly think that the end justifies the means, and I think that's pretty much church doctrine.

There is quite a lot about miracles, saints and relics, and it reminded me firstly of Gibbon, who is absolutely scathing about this; and secondly, in a weird way, of the novel "Unquenchable Fire" (recently read), which is set in a future America after the advent of a new-age pagan religion...because it was obvious to me how awful and loathsome the superstitions of that religion were, though not to the characters in the book or perhaps even to the author - and because it's only the longevity of Christianity that makes its doctrines and narrative seem less absurd. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Review of Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The perfect book to read during my covid experience...engaging and exciting but not at all emotionally demanding. This is a multi-threaded action thriller, with lots of characters and fantastic settings. It's huge, and I had a hardback that I had bought years ago but never got round to reading, partly because it always seemed so daunting to put in a backpack. But it was a fantastic bedside read. 

It's set against a background of cod-medieval MMPRGs like World of Warcraft, Russian cybercriminals, Chinese game farmers, smugglers, American gun nuts, jihadis...really, lots. And it's done so deftly, so that the characters don't feel like caricatures but are easy to keep track of - there are really lots, so that's important. I particularly like the wisecracking Afro-Welsh jihadi bad guy Abdallah Jones.

No need to elaborate more. There's a lot of guns and violence, and by the end it was all getting a bit much for me, but it's a very enjoyable read. I've just discovered there's a sequel, with some of the same characters and others crossing over from his other book Cryptonomicon, and I know that it's inevitable that I'll read it.

Review of One Halal of a Story by Sam Dastryadi

My dear friend Steve Norden gave us this book on his final visit to the UK from Australia, so I want to find things about it to like. The early chapters, about his parents' lives as radicals and revolutionaries in Iran, are interesting and enjoyable, and so are some of the bits about growing up as a foreign-born kid and wanting to fit's a familiar tale, but he does it nicely. 

But suddenly he emerges as a fully-formed Austalian Labor Party right-wing backroom fixer. There's no intervening story, no account of how he went from the awkward foreign kid to the machine-politics operator. He doesn't seem to have any particular political passions, other than a vague desire that things not be quite so unfair for 'the little people'. He doesn't like backwoods racists like Pauline Hanson, and he's against banks doing bad things. His apparent surprise that big corporates wield a lot of political power would be laughable were it not for the fact that so many right-wing Labor (and Labour) types have probably never given this a minutes thought.

It's also not clear what his achievements are that allow him to rise so rapidly, and so young, through the ranks of the NSW and national Labor Party. So I searched for him, and found that his political career had ended under something of a cloud, with the suspicion that he had been an agent of influence for China within Australian politics, or that there had been petitions calling for him to be charged with treason. To be scruplously fair he does mention this in the book, rather in the way one would a failure of etiquette. 

Probably to be read as a piece of evidence in political history rather than as a way of learning much about the man or the politics of the period.

Review of Only Good Things (Solo Cose Belle)

An Italian film with potential that's not realised. In a beautiful small town an old lady leaves the family mansion to a charity that fills it with a foster family who take in refugees, disabled people and an ex-criminal youth. The good-looking but mildly corrupt local mayor has other plans for the mansion, but his daughter accidentally gets involved with the foster family (while spray-painting nasty slogans on the mansion wall) and falls for the ex-criminal young man.

Some nice moments but it never really takes off, and everyone's a bit too nice, even the rascally mayor and his social-climbing wife.

Watched on Netflix.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Review of Love and Gelato

Not very interesting American YA romcom, in which a young nervous nerdy girl fulfills her mother's dying wish by making a trip to Rome, where she picks up the threads of her mother's life as a young woman - her fun-loving cousin-friend, her best bloke-buddy who she should have loved, the not-very-nice professor who was her lover, etc etc. And our young protagonist is wooed by two beautiful Italian young men, each eligible and ineligible in different ways.

Despite all this plot, and lovely settings, it's a bit dull.

Watched on Netflix.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Review of "The School Teacher of St Michel" by Sarah Steele

First, to declare an interest. Sarah Steele is a friend and fellow Red Band member, and I had a tiny bit of input into the book - Sarah asked me some questions about some of the Jewish stuff, and I was able to save her from a few errors and also provide some details for Jewish remembrance customs; and I am thanked very kindly in the afterword acknowledgements for this.

Second, to provide a context. I don't think that I am in the target market for this book, which is a historical wartime novel with more than a touch of chick-lit in it...there's too much detail on the outfits that the women wear, and though I like cooking and anything to do with food, the way that it's introduced in the book didn't work for me.

And perhaps because of this, and the split narrative structure with some of the action in the present and some in the past, it felt like it took too long to get going. But when it did I found myself drawn in, and caring about the characters and what happened to them, and utterly gripped by the last third of the book. I even had to choke back a few tears at the end.

Nerdily I spotted at least one error that I had missed the first time round - French Easter does not in any way involve rabbits, chocolate or otherwise; that's just an Anglo thing. And I wondered a little about the extent to which the Vichy regime in unoccupied France would have felt like a safe or welcoming destination for Jews smuggled from the north...Vichy had its own racial laws and managed to deport 75,000 Jews to the camps for extermination. 

But these are quibbles really. I enjoyed the book and I'm looking forward to Sarah's next one.

Review of "Darling Lili"

Quite a bad film, but sort of enjoyable nonetheless. It's a WW1 spy film, with Julie Andrews as a singer entertaining the British and French troops behind the lines and in the field hospitals, but also being a German spy. I want to say that I can't remember a film in which Julie Andrews plays a villain, but there isn't really any sense that she is a baddie in this...she is in a relationship with top flyer Major Larrabee and trying to wheedle secrets out of him to pass (over the phone, implausibly) to her German handler, but there isn't really any sense that this is villainous or that it puts soldiers' lives in jeopardy. 

Much of the time it has the feeling of a Carry On film, particularly with the two comic French army intelligence characters, who spend much of their time falling off roofs and into ponds. In fact almost all of the French characters are played for laughs, though the Germans are to be taken seriously - some of them are sinister, some are quite likeable, especially the handler, played by Jeremy Kemp. 

The plot is mainly terrible, the acting pretty awful, but I am a bit of a Julie Andrews fan, and the songs and singing scenes are enjoyable. Afterwards I read the Wikipedia article, and saw that this had a huge budget - and you can see where it went, with really big crowd scenes and some quite good dogfight footage - but made very little money, though it won one award (for a Henry Mancini song) and was nominated for others. Perhaps they should have spent some of the huge budget on the writers, though I know that's not very Hollywood.

Unusually watched as hard disc recording at my mother-in-law.

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Review of 'This Is Your Mind on Plants' by Michael Pollan

I read Michael Pollan's book on psychedelics and really liked it - this is a sort of companion volume, though rather slighter. It only covers a few psychoactive plant derivatives really - opium, caffeine and mescaline. But I enjoyed all three chapters. The one on opium mainly focuses on some of the weirdness of drug policy, which in the US resulted in the authorities deciding to ban the growing of freely available poppies (though not the seeds, because they had a culinary use) and the possession of freely available dried poppies, popular with flower arrangers - but then not to tell anyone, for fear of encouraging the use of the poppies to make opium, which is apparently quite easy. 

The chapter on caffeine has some interesting stuff, especially the personal account of an attempt at abstinence and the chemistry of how caffeine works, but it feels a bit padded with historical stuff that I knew already and I think is widely written about.

The mescaline one was shorter, less padded, and took on some interesting issues about the relationship between drug reform advocates who want to 'decriminalize plants', and Native Americans who want to preserve their own privileged and restricted access to the mescaline-bearing cacti, which is culturally and spiritually significant to them (but as part of a relatively recent made-up religion). Again, a great read, and of course he writes brilliantly about his own mescaline and peyote experiences, while acknowledging the difficulty of writing about such things.

Review of "The History of The Countryside" by Oiver Rackham

A magnificent book - I learned something on each page, and often in each sentence. Although this is an academic text rather than a 'popular' book he writes really well, and the text is full of beautiful anecdotes - some historical, some personal (like the fact that his college has a drinking vessel probably made from the horn of an auroch). It's organised thematically rather than chronologically, so there are chapters on woodlands, grasslands, heaths, and so on. 

I probably need to read it again to collect my thoughts on the main themes...but I certainly got that not much of the woodland in the UK is anything to do with the wildwood that once covered more of the island/s, and that there are other types of landscape of historical value worth preserving as well as woodland - not all forestation is a good thing. I'm going to look to see if there are any videos of him speaking - I'd vote for a TV series based on this any day!

Review of The Hustlie

This makes me aware of the risks involved in my decision to only review films that I finish watching. This is pretty bloody awful, and I was sure I'd seen it before, but I checked my reviews database and it seemed I hadn't. Well, that was because last time I gave it up half way through, which was still a good decision, but an unrecorded one. At least that won't happen again.

This is a con-game film, which can be good, but this one really isn't. What were Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson doing in this pile of shit? Making a lot of money, I suppose - oddly the film seems to have been a commercial success.

Watched on Netflix, and that's two hours I will never get back.

Review of The Decoy Bride

Surprisingly decent romcom set on a remote Scottish island, with David Tennant as the romantic lead, and some good jokes. The ending is visible from early on, but it's still nice nevertheless.

Watched on BBC iPlayer/

Friday, June 03, 2022

Review of 'The Good Lord Bird' by James McBride

I quite liked this - I started watching the TV series around the beginning of the first lockdown, and gave up - mainly because Ruth didn't like how violent it was. I might go back to it. It's interesting in treating John Brown as a bit of a nutter rather - or perhaps as well as - an abolitionist hero. The narrator is a young Black man (well, boy really) who is swept against his will into the guerrila war against slavery in Kansas that preceded the Civil War proper, and for various accidental reasons ends up passing as a girl for most of the book. Some of that it funny, though there are serious aspects to it, about the relationship between race and gender.

I'd never heard of James McBride before but I'll look out for more of him.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Review of The Photographer of Mauthausen


A not entirely satisfactory film about Spanish Republican Francisco Boix, who escaped the fall of Spain to France where he was interned, joined the French Foreign Legion and ended up in a Nazi concentration camp (Mauthausen) along with thousands of other Spanish Republicans - the Francoist regime cancelled their citizenship so that they were officially stateless.

I first heard about Boix during a Civil War walking tour of Barcelona given by Nick Lloyd (do it if you get a chance) and was very moved by the story, so I was keen to see the film even though I generally avoid Holocaust movies. This film reminded me why - it's very hard to get the tone right, and this had lots of touches that I didn't like...slushy music, thriller-type tropes, and a sometimes confusing plot. What was the trick by which Communists in the camp were switching already-dead prisoners for resistance fighters marked for execution? I didn't understand it from the film. The real Boix hid photographic evidence from the the film he just seems to shove it behind cupboards in the hope that it won't be found.

I note in passing that the character of Paul Ricken, one of the SS officers in the camp, is made more sympathetic than history suggests...

The moment in which the camp is liberated can't but be effective, and the Spanish prisoners produce a Republican flag to greet their liberators. This is all the more effective because we know that their hopes that the fight against Franco will be recognised as part of the greater anti-Fascist war are about to be dashed. Right at the end we see that many of the shots in the film are reconstructions of the actual photos.

Watched on Netflix via Chromecast and (Ruth's) smartphone.