Monday, December 29, 2014

Review of 'Where the Heart is'

This is what Natalie Portman was doing 14 years ago, though her career survived.

It's the cinematic equivalent of eating toffee popcorn sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. It's unbearably sweet, and dull. All the poor white people are beautiful and thin. All the alcoholics (of which there are several in the film) have good complexions and teeth. There are occasional funny lines, and lots of product placement. I can't guess how much Wal-Mart must have paid to be featured so centrally and sympathetically. Also Kodak, for all the good it did the company; and I would say that the lingering shots of La Portman's bum are to show off the red tag on her jeans.

Also too long - two hours.

Review of "Safety Not Guaranteed"

Cute, quirky, independent film - almost self-consciously independent, since it's set in and around Seattle and the central character girl is a sort of scrubbed-up skater type.

The self-made geek who is the other central character is supposed to be making his own time machine, but this is (thankfully) not a time-travel film. It's about eccentricity, self-delusion, and small towns.

Some material about internships, magazine journalism, a hint towards conspiracy films, some coming-of-age and 'revisiting your ex' stuff, but a fun film. And short too, which was a pleasure. So many bad films are also too long; presumably editing them down would cost too much.

This won't change the world but it's a bearable way to spend 83 minutes.

Review of 'Gone Girl'

Funny how there is so much less to write about with a good film than a bad one. This is a closely plotted psychological thriller with a possible murder and a missing person. There are two major plot twists, neither of which I saw coming, so good value there. It’s plot driven, but the characters are good and there are lots of nice details, like the media satire and the celebrity murder lawyer. I’ve always liked Rosamund Pike, so that’s another plus. I can’t see how I can say much else without this being a spoiler; this is good and worth watching.

OK, that said, now a SPOILER ALERT; don’t read further if you want to see this and enjoy it properly.

There is one plot/character hole that bothers me. It seems that Amy plans to complete her frame-up of her husband by killing herself. We ‘see’ her minds-eye view of the body drifting in the Mississippi, and she has a note on her meticulous planning calendar that says ‘Kill Self’. But this does seem rather out of character for her. She is a self-centred psychopathic bitch, and she has everything else worked out. So does she have a scenario where she lives on after her husband is executed for her murder? If so, I didn’t catch it. When she goes into hiding she takes a wodge of cash, but it’s not that much. But when she is forced to change her plan because she is robbed, she doesn’t bring forward the self-topping but instead looks up old flame/victim Collings. Also, the note on the calendar to kill herself doesn't appear to be the last item.

Maybe this is much clearer in the book. Can anyone who has read it, or watched the film more carefully, please explain?

Review of 'The Hobbit': Zionism in Middle Earth

“I understand how. I do not understand why.” That’s what Winston Smith says in 1984, and that’s pretty much how I feel about this film. Why expend so much effort and technical expertise to turn a little kids’ book into a mega-epic that bores as much as it is impresses?

There are some good things about it – the scenery, the sets, and sometimes the music. The actors try to do their best with it – the occasional glance that suggest they know this is codswallop but they and we are in it together. The scenes with Gollum in it are well done – the combination of pathos and malice in the character really is remarkable.

But the dialogue is mainly awful. The narrative is padded so as to allow nine hours of epic out of a quite small book, and things have been crowbarred in so as to suggest that Bilbo’s journey is, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, part of some titanic struggle against evil – lots of portentous dialogue between Gandalf and various elves, and some scenes with a very Osama-like Saruman obviously being deceitful.

The action scenes, which make up so much of the film, are terrible and stupid. Repeatedly the band of dwarves get stuck in an unwinnable battle, in which they fight bravely but from which they are rescued by an outside agency – Gandalf turns up, or elves on horseback, or rescue eagles. Despite being involved in lots of fighting against overwhelming odds no dwarf is every killed or even injured; and the set-pieces in which they fall thousands of feet  down caverns on collapsing wooden structures, and then pick themselves up and rush into another fight, are not even laughable.

Perhaps there is scope for a “film-goers’ cut”, with all the scenery, sets and arch glances, but none of the dialogue or plot. It could be about 20 minutes long. I’d be up for that.

One more thought, on the representation of race and class. In Lord of the Rings the orcs spoke with cockney accents; here they speak orcish, with sub-titles. I know Tolkien actually made up languages for everyone, but are the orcs speaking his orcish? It does sound rather Slavic. Here it’s only the trolls who speak with working-class British accents, with extra comedy provided by the fact that they are talking about the finer points of cooking – it’s obviously funny when working-class people do that, as is proved by ‘Come Dine with Me’.

But are the Dwarves Jews? Of course they are – don’t take my word for it, Tolkien said so.

Leaving aside the reputation for being fearsome fighters for a moment, they live underground, they are good with making things, they love and hoard gold, and – as Bilbo explains – they are a people without a home, living in permanent exile since they were driven out of their ancestral land. In fact, it is his recognition of this, and his wish to help the dwarves recover their homeland, which persuades Bilbo to go on with his quest, making him a sort of Middle Earth Christian Zionist. It’s a good thing that the dwarves’ Zion is only occupied by a dragon rather than say Goblins, isn’t it? Otherwise just think how many bloody sequels there would have to be.

So the answer to the 'why' question might be that this film was made to serve Zionist interests. Or to expose them. Whatever, really.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of 'The Interview'

Well, we had to watch this, even though we didn’t think it would be much good. Our expectations were not disappointed; it really isn’t much good. I laughed at this ‘comedy’ maybe two or three times. Although it has an ostensibly political theme, the laughs are supposed to come from the usual gross-out subjects – farts, vomiting, things being shoved up arses…

For once, it’s possible to say that this film wasn’t released, it escaped. Those of a conspiratorial bent might be tempted to consider whether Sony manufactured the controversy to avoid releasing such an awful film, or even to ensure that some people would watch ‘in defence of free speech’. If it had been released in the normal way it would certainly have bombed.

It doesn’t really deserve a detailed review. The talk show host and his producer go to North Korea intending to follow through on the CIA’s request to assassinate Kim Jong-Un; then the host finds that Kim isn’t so bad after all and doesn’t want to kill him, then he finds out that he is, after all, really bad and does want to kill him. Then they decide not to kill him but to ask him difficult questions on air, rather than the prepared ones, so as to humiliate him before his people. But he ends up getting killed anyway, and we see his body burning as the plucky duo shoot his helicopter down from a stolen tank.

Once again, this film has lots of gay themes. Early on we see Eminem come out as gay on air. Kim Jong-Un is worried that his liking for margheritas and Katy Perry might be taken as proof that he is gay. The producer and talk show host are not in a gay relationship, but they are very affectionate buddies.  The producer has to insert what is in effect a very large butt plug into his anus to hide a second delivery of ricin poison from the North Koreans. I suspect that sympathetic depictions of gayness are now an important signifier of ‘civilised values’ – by including some nice stuff about gay people this film proves that it is not merely patriotic warmongering trash like ‘Red Dawn’. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

It’s been a not-entirely-great year

Maybe the Facebook robots are even cleverer than we know. Most of my friends seem to have had those “It’s been a great year” posts created for them, but the robots seem to have left me out. I’m grateful. It’s not been a great year.

This time last year I posted a picture of a hospital corridor with a pathetic bit of tinsel hanging from a fluorescent light fitting, or something similar. It caught my eye while I was visiting my dad in the Acute Unit at Whipps Cross Hospital, and it seemed to sum up perfectly the contradictory feelings that I had about me, and him, and all the other people including the staff, being there. And part of this not-great year is that he died, in June, after more than a year of dementia and degeneration, so that by the end he was more in hospital than out of it, even though there was not usually anything that could reasonably be called a treatable illness afflicting him.

I dream about him often, not as he was at the end, but more like the way he was about fifteen years ago, when he was an active and engaged grandparent to my two boys, as well as to my brother’s two daughters.

This time last year I also compiled a list of all the things I’d done during the year – trips, work reports, blog posts and book reviews. It seemed worth doing, to confirm that something had actually happened. It rather felt that I’d been in stasis for years, and the log proved that I’d actually done something.

There doesn’t seem much point in doing the same this year, which has been eventful enough. I was made redundant from Ovum, after 14 years there, in April. I’d been imagining that happening for years, from the first time the company was acquired, so it didn’t come as a surprise but it was still a shock. The process was followed to the letter, and I can’t complain that I was treated unfairly. I was offered a much bigger redundancy sum than the statutory entitlement. I was given the chance to interview for a role a bit like my own. And there were some comedy moments in the whole thing, because both I and the other interviewee didn’t want to stay anymore, so we both had to compete to be allowed to leave with the redundancy money.

I didn’t do any more work for Ovum after the beginning of April. In principle I was on a 30-day consultation period, but the outcome was pretty obvious. Then I had three months ‘notice period’, during which I was strictly prohibited from doing any other money-earning work, but not debarred from making contacts for future freelance work. In the end that proved a bit pointless, because I was offered a position by M2M/IoT specialist analyst firm Machina Research, which has proved to be rather exciting and even a bit fun.

All that free time allowed me to spend some time with my dad as his condition deteriorated. I didn’t really know that he was on the final stretch of his life, though, because the slide was so gradual it was hard to notice the progress. Ruth and I went on holiday to France in mid-June. Dad had seemed a little better of late, and was out of hospital when we went. He died while we were still away in the Pyrenees, and we travelled back within the day.

Part of the run-up to the holiday had been the death of our cat, Beauty, who had been with us for nine years or so. It feels odd comparing the death of a pet to the death of my dad, but it all seemed to part of the same thing, a series of blows that life had become. This was how it was going to be from now on.

Of course, it wasn’t. The not-great year has had some great moments too. I’m very proud of my sons’ achievements this year – Louis got a Distinction in his degree, Lexei won a scholarship to help support his studies.

I am closer than ever to Ruth, who has been a partner and best friend through all of this, and who has helped me dealing with some stuff that has hung about in my life for – well, all of it, really. Together we’ve had a year without the twists and turns of the cohousing group that we left at the end of 2013, and we’ve had the pleasure of living in the Springhill cohousing community for the month of November, and discovering that we liked cohousing in practice as well as in theory.

I published a novel, One Shoe Tale, which has had some nice reviews. We got some new cats, who have turned out to be fine animals, funny and affectionate and full of life.

So screw you, Facebook robots. It’s been some good and some bad, because that’s what life is. I might have done without some of it, but that’s not what life is.

Review of 'Dangerous Beauty'

A historical costume romp, with some feminist overtones about the lack of choices available to women in sixteenth-century Venice, and the hypocrisy of men in blaming them for the choices they were forced in to. Veronica Franco (a real historical figure and published poet) becomes a courtesan because she doesn't have a big enough dowry to marry the nobleman she loves. She is inducted into the profession by her mother, a retired courtesan, which is a cue for some scenes of a sexual nature, though nothing particularly shocking. There's lots of beautiful footage of Venice and Renaissance parties. There's a plague, some religious persecution, some scenes in an Inquisition court - what's not to like?

Nothing very heavy or intellectually demanding, but good fun.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Review of ‘Kill Your Darlings’

A film about the origins of the Beat Generation, with adolescent Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg getting up to all sorts of naughty pranks in 1940s New York. Lots of drugs and booze, some vandalism and sneaking into the library at night to substitute rude books like Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer for the university’s recognised canon in glass cabinets. Oh what fun they had!

It all goes a bit wrong when a gay love triangle ends in a brutal stabbing murder, but it works out OK 
for our three hipster heroes, who are bailed out by their parents (or in Kerouac’s case, his fiancĂ©e), and even for the murderer himself who gets off on the hilarious defence that his victim was a homosexual predator, and so the stabbing was in “self-defence”.

I’m being a bit unfair, but this wasn't all that good. Daniel Radcliffe is sort of all right as a moody Ginsberg, and there are lots of smouldering looks between him and his not-quite-gay lover, but it’s hard to take a rebellion against metre and rhyme, and based on cutting up books, very seriously.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review of 'Along Came Polly'

This film never stood a chance. It has Jennifer Aniston in it, and it has Ben Stiller. Either of these are efficient indicators that a film is going to be rubbish; taken together they are a lot more reliable than a triple A rating on a bond that this will be terrible.

And yet, somewhere in here was a good film struggling, and failing, to escape. It has Philip Seymour Hoffman, the opposite of a crap indicator; if he’s in it, it’s usually good. Sure, his character is mainly played for the kind of cheap laughs you’d expect from a romcom/frat-buddy film, but underneath there is a kind of tragic story about someone who never recovered from early success, and who has zero insight into himself. When Hoffman and Stiller’s characters play basketball there is a running gag whereby Hoffman makes all the right noises and calls to indicate that he is about to make a winning shot, but always misses. This underlines the lack of insight thing; Hoffman continues to not notice that he is doing this and is very bad at basketball.

Stiller’s character has too much insight into himself – he understands himself as a man scared of life, with a too well developed sense of statistical risk. Of course this is played for laughs, but there is some sense of the underlying tragedy. Bad things really do happen to him (his new wife shags a scuba instructor on his honeymoon, for example) but those aren’t the things for which he has calculated a probability.

And much of the film is about relationships between men – between Stiller and his buddy Hoffman, Stiller and his new girlfriend’s gay best friend, Stiller and his obnoxious boss, Stiller and the Australian CEO who’s risky life he is supposed to be assessing for insurance purposes, Stiller and his silent father…without the cheap laughs this could actually have been a thoughtful and sensitive film. The Australian CEO makes for a bit of a sub-plot that could have been funny and interesting; the way that Stiller’s new wife humiliates him with the scuba instructor and later tries to resume the relationship as if nothing has happened has genuine tragic potential.

Interestingly, for a romcom, it’s the men’s bodies that are really examined; it’s almost a gay film dressed up as a man-woman romcom. There is very little chemistry between Stiller and Aniston, or between Stiller and his soon-to-be-ex-wife. There’s a bit more between Stiller and his mother, naturally. She manages to unfailingly give him the wrong advice, including the suggestion that he should get back together with the cheating wife.

Despite all this, the film is not worth watching, except perhaps on a plane when the alternative is back-to-back Stallone movies. But it’s interesting to muse on how this could have been made differently, so that it actually was worth watching.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Review of 'The Invisible Woman'

Nice, slow but worthwhile adaptation of Claire Tomalin's book about Dickens's affair. Dickens is rather well played by Ralph Fiennes (who also directed) as a charming and sentimental man who is also a bit of a shit - he humiliates his wife and treats his mistress very badly too. Some good insights into the Victorian world of celebrity, and lots of good performances, including one by Kirstin Scott Thomas as the mistress's mother.

Review of "Jimmy's Hall"

A solid Ken Loach film about Jimmy Gralton, an Irish Communist in the post-Independence period, who opened a little tin-roofed hall for cultural and educational activities in a rural area and thus aroused the enmity of the church and local reactionaries. Good because it recovers from obscurity the story of Gralton, the only Irishman to be deported from Ireland, and because it avoids the usual nationalist cliches about Ireland's troubles all being due to the British. The thugs who close down Jimmy's hall are Free State policemen and soldiers; the rascally landlords who evict tenants are all Irish, not cardboard Anglo aristocrats. The IRA are a useless bunch of ditherers and fence-sitters, not the bold nationalist heroes that they usually are in Hollywood films.

Review of 'The Railway Man'

A good enough film about the life of Eric Lomax, who was a prisoner of the Japanese during WW2 and worked on the notorious Burma railway, where he was tortured. The film depicts his time as a prisoner, and his later life as one of several war veterans horrendously damaged by their experience. Lomax (Colin Firth) is encouraged by his wife (Nicole Kidman playing against type as a rather mumsy middle-aged woman) to deal with his pain rather than push it under the carpet, and he eventually finds and confronts the Japanese man who translated during his sessions of torture.

It's a good film rather than a great one. Firth is rather good as a slightly nerdy 'railway enthusiast'.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A cunning wheeze: make the public pay for culinary excellence

I have a cunning wheeze. I am going to open a very expensive restaurant. The food is going to be absolutely top quality, and it will serve the best wines. The prices will be such that only the very rich will be able to afford to eat there. I will talk a lot though about how it benefits the whole of society by raising the standards of cuisine and setting a benchmark for cooking. Wouldn't it be nice if other restaurants could be as good, by ‘levelling up’ to be as good as this expensive one?

The cunning bit is that you lot are going to help to pay for my restaurant, in which only rich people can afford to eat. That’s because my restaurant is going to be a charity. It won’t make any profit, though it will pay me a handsome salary for overseeing it. I will call the charity the Foundation for Excellence in Culinary Knowledge, just to show what I think of plebs like you. Because the restaurant is a charity it will get all sorts of tax exemptions – unlike the restaurants where the hoi polloi eat.

If anyone really makes a fuss I’ll offer to let some pleb chefs train in the kitchen once a month, or even send some of my chefs over to pleb restaurants once a month to show them how we make really good food and serve excellent wine. That should keep the Labour Party sweet, right? I mean, if it works in education, why shouldn't it work for restaurants?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of ‘Interstellar’

Was really looking forward to this one, and just a tiny bit disappointed; not entirely sure it’s OK to say so, since so many others have such strong opinions, and lots of people really like it.
It’s visually arresting, though not as much so as other Nolan films. The audio was murky, though this might be my declining ears (I find myself saying that more and more) or even the crappy sound system at Muswell Hill Odeon. Whatever the reason, I missed some of the dialogue, though this didn’t seem to matter all that much. It’s a film of images and themes. The images are striking enough, and they function as visual cues to call up reserves of associations and feelings.

The dust bowl is one. The film begins with documentary-style talking heads, people talking about the wind-blown dust. Actually, they are real documentary talking heads, from another film about the 1930s dust bowl. There are shots of American climate refugees who look just like the Oakies of the 1930s, down to the trucks – explained by the fact that the climate crisis, and a population crash, means that everyone is making do with retro technology.

And maybe it’s just me, but I thought that the space suits – particularly the helmets – looked more like the ones worn by Soviet cosmonauts than American astronauts. That wouldn’t fit with the overall story line, which is about the ultimate triumph of the American way of life – Old Glory on the surface of planets in other galaxies – but it does help to give the space effort a sort of battered retro look.

Another visual cue is the film 2001 A Space Odyssey, to which this has sometimes been compared. I saw 2001 when it was already old, and I don’t have the feeling of reverence for it that some people seem to have. I can still recognise the scenes which evoke the earlier film, though – some of the shots of the ring-shaped array of docked spacecraft, the sequence when they pass through the wormhole – and the overall theme of humans being curated by a benevolent external intelligence.

It’s more about the themes than anything else. The plot and the narrative drags a bit. The dialogue is not important, and the characters are mainly uninteresting – apart from Matt Damon’s character. But there really are lots of big themes. Ecological crisis, climate change, and future food shortages. The relationships between parents and children, and what each owes to the other. The role of science and technology. General and special relativity, and the way that the physics of space travel would impact on the relations between the generations.

Others have commented on the underlying politics of the film – the message that it doesn’t entirely matter that we’ve fucked up the planet, because science and technology will be able to build us an escape route to other worlds, and that anyone who says we need to fix this planet because it’s the only one we have is a misguided liberal – and a dishonest conspiracy nut too, prepared to spread the lie that the moon landings were faked if it serves a purpose. 

Review of Northern Soul

I've never been a member of a music-based subculture, so I don’t know what it feels to define oneself as a member of an in-group based on clothes and music. That’s what this film is about, though. The main character is a slightly geeky, introverted boy whose parents bully him into trying the local youth club, and who – by taking sides in a fight on the spur of the moment – finds himself fallen in among soul boys. He becomes an enthusiastic participant and thereby finds shape and meaning for his life. There are lots of amphetamines, some of them dodgy.

The film is dark and dirty-looking, and the sound is sometimes a bit muffled – funny for a film about music. There is no sense that the palaces of Northern Soul were wonderlands for the people who went to them; they look dismal. The dancing about which so much has been said is energetic but graceless and not at all beautiful. It’s a sort of male competitive display, the boys dancing to impress each other. They certainly don’t seem very interested in the girls, who bob up and down discreetly in the background.

It did remind me a bit about how awful it was being a teenager in the 1970s, even though my suburban London Grammar School wasn’t even close to this world. Fountain pens and ink bottles, uncomfortable school uniforms, the underlying threat of violence between boys, the sarcastic teachers, the horrible dangerous cars…

Funny to recall a time when any kind of recorded music was a rare and precious commodity that you had to seek out, and where finding and owning the right recordings was worth both money and cudos. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'

A comedy thriller – not always a good hybrid, but this one works well. Robert Downey Jnr is good as the rather hapless recent arrival in Hollywood who stumbles into a complex plot involving incest, swapped bodies, frame-ups and murder, while failing to get it together with his teenage unrequited love. A few ‘alienation of the audience’ devices as RDJ speaks directly to camera, pauses the action and so on, which also work quite well. The detective to whom RDJ is assigned to ‘learn about the detective business’ for his putative movie role is gay, played by Val Wilmer, and I thought the gay jokes were sympathetic, not nasty, and quite funny; not really for me to say, though.

Is it of any consequence that I had seen it before and forgotten it? I don't think so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review of 'Wristcutters'

A strange but not unenjoyable film set in an afterlife peopled entirely by suicides. Visually striking, apart from the naff 'miracles', in the way it evokes decay and dereliction. An interesting premise, not too badly done, it doesn't worry too much about plot mechanics or continuity - well, they're all dead, aren't they? Tom Waits is in it, so it can't be all bad. Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello, was originally supposed to play the role

The poster and DVD cover art are a bit misleading, in that they suggest it's lighter than it really is.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of 'Detachment'

A really good film about a supply teacher - how often do you get to write that? I was expecting a conventional 'inspiring teacher' or even 'cynical bad teacher' film, but this was much, much better. So much insight into the pain and humiliation of ordinary life, and the ways that people armour themselves against it. Some good acting (including Lucy Liu playing against type as a burnt-out school counsellor), really interesting camera-work, haunting incidental music. Well worth watching.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review of Frankenweenie

I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. Sometimes Tim Burton's stuff is less than the sum of its parts. This was comic horror, a spoof on school movies and horror that worked quite well. I noticed the cinematic references to the original Frankenstein movie, and one or two to Godzilla; I've never seen 'Pet Sematery' but I suspect there were more references there, and others that I just missed. The science teacher who looked like Vincent Price was great (was his car, which was largely out of shot, a Trabant?), and I liked the way that the town meeting was so stupidly anti-science - a reversal of the original Frankenstein story, which is itself anti-science. And science mainly saves the day at the end, some of which is actually a bit scary for comic horror spoof.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review of 'The Phantom' - really, really, don't bother with this

Tosh, and not even likeable tosh. I know it's supposed to be a comic, but does it have to be so dull? Sort of sub-Indiana Jones, but with a character so near-omnipotent, and so devoid of complexity of any sort, as to rid the film of almost all interest and suspense. Really, compared to The Phantom Indiana Jones is Hamlet. Oh, and it's casually racist in a sort of TinTin way, with a fictional 'jungle' setting that doesn't correspond to anywhere in particular though it has a British garrison and native servants in turbans.

The dullness is ameliorated somewhat by a quite young (27) Catherine Zeta-Jones as a beautiful but sinister baddie in what appears to be black silk jumpsuit, but she turns good about two thirds through, so that ruins that.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review of ‘Still the Enemy Within’

This well-made, insightful, thoughtful documentary about the 1984-5 miners’ strike in the UK was painful to watch, because it’s impossible to forget that the story ends with a bitter defeat. Subsequent events have demonstrated that the miners’ militant leadership were absolutely correct in their assessment of what the government had planned for the industry and the communities of people who worked in it. The extent to which the government was prepared to go in subverting the very rule of law which it accused the miners of seeking to undermine has also become clearer, as has the complicity of the right-wing media in propagating utterly false smears about the miners’ union and their leaders.

That the miners were proved right, and the government shown to be nasty, doesn't make it any easier to watch. The whole awful 1980s experience came flooding back – the Wapping dispute, Rate Capping, the Falklands War triumphalism, the 1987 election, Section 28…I could literally taste it all. Much of it bound up with a particularly windy corner of Swiss Cottage where we did collections and street stalls. For me it was slightly worse because the first interviewee, to whom the film keeps returning, came from Frickley Colliery, the pit which adoped by my then constituency Labour Party, Hampstead and Highgate.

The film attempts to end with a positive note, showing some of its interviewees marching on an ant-cuts demo, with a sort of ‘the struggle goes on’ message. But this obscures rather than clarifies. In the 1980s the labour movement was actually confronting the state and its masters; traipsing through the streets on a protest march is not the same thing at all. Somehow this made it worse.

This is a great film, and anyone interested in progressive politics should watch it, but unlike "Pride"there aren't many laughs or a happy, uplifting ending. This is a lesson in defeat, the kind that you can see coming but are powerless to prevent. As I left two women behind me, who might have been comrades from that time, were talking about the possibility of a film about the Wapping dispute. A good idea, but can I be spared having to watch it?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Review of 'Stuck in Love'

Slightly genre-defying - is it a romcom, a family drama, a coming of age movie, or what? The poster seems to go for serious drama (and there are some drug overdose scenes, and some adult language and sex bits). But quite nice, and enjoyable in a slightly indulgent sort of way.

Dad Bill is a middle-ranking writer who has brought his kids up to be writers too (he pays them to keep journals instead of taking McJobs), and they appreciate this. The parents are divorced, but he's still waiting for her to come back to him. The most talented of the children, the daughter, can't forgive her for leaving him and doesn't speak to her mother, but really it's...well, you get the idea. Some teen comedy tropes, some writer comedy stuff, and lots of interesting but not laboured stuff about relationships - between adults, between teens, between adults and teens. There are worse ways to pass 100 minutes.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review of 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Silly, pointless, a bit dull. The dialogue is hopeless, the characters uninteresting and poorly acted (were the cast moonlighting on this while they actually worked on something more substantial?), and the mildly interesting plot wasted through a series of missed moments. Only the sets, and the occasional set-piece reconstruction (mainly the jazz clubs and cabarets) are worth looking at. I fell asleep a few times but didn't seem to miss much. Just worth noticing how awful Colin Firth is in this, compared to how good he is in 'Before I go to sleep'. Is it that he didn't care, or are actors just as good as the script and the direction?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review of "Pride"

A lovely, uplifting film. Well, it was for me, anyway. These days (not in the period it depicts) I have friends with a wider range of views, and I'm sure some of them won't find its depiction of working-class solidarity in the face of state repression, prejudice and corporate-sponsored asset stripping that uplifting. For me, though, this was beautiful, poignant, funny, and very enjoyable. I was involved in a miners' support group in North London - well, all right, in Hampstead and Highgate Labour Party - and I felt a little flicker of pride in my own small connection with this.

Super acting from all your favourite British actors, especially Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, and they must have had so much fun with the art direction.

I wasn't expecting a surprise ending - after all, we all know that the miners lost. But I really didn't know about the NUM contingent at the front of the Gay Pride march in 1985. A big lump in my throat for that, and actual tears for the singing in the working men's club.

A small final observation, which is hinted at near the end, when the Pride organisers try to take banners with political slogans out of the 1985 march; support for gay rights is now pretty mainstream,  and 'apolitical', whereas in the 1980s the Tories thought that opposition to gays was a vote-winner; Section 28 of the Local Government Act prohibiting the 'promotion' of homosexuality wasn't introduced until 1988, three years after the film's setting. On the other hand, solidarity with workers on strike now feels like it belongs to the age of chivalry. The two movements passed each other along the way, and this film captures that moment.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Review of 'Before I Go to Sleep'

Easily the scariest film I have seen in a while - well, I don't really do scary. This is a tense psychological thriller about a woman with a memory disorder who can't remember anything that has happened to her since her early twenties, and wakes up every morning with all subsequent memories (including those of the previous day) wiped clean. Anything else I say will be a plot spoiler, but I can say that the acting is great (I don't know if emotions really look like what Nicole Kidman performs, but there is no doubt that she is communicating them powerfully), the casting superb (you'll know what I mean when you've seen it), and the plot full of twists that I didn't see coming. Woke up in the night thinking about it.

Review of 'Snowpiercer'

An interesting science fiction film with a strong political message, about inequality, hierarchy, resistance - and also a warning about geo-engineering as a solution to climate change as part of the backstory. Some good actors (especially Tilda Swinton channelling the ghost of Thora Hird, and John Hurt doing a sort of Alex Guiness), great art design, a slightly plodding script (did the dialogue have to be so lacklustre).

And really very violent - lots of blood and gore, horrible fight scenes that go on and on. I don't mind a bit of gore in a film, but this really felt over the top and surely means that fewer people will see it. Actually, to the best of my knowledge no-one has watched it after it was 'released' in 2013 - has it ever been shown in cinemas anywhere?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Time to hang up that skull and crossbones flag...?

Here’s a funny thing. A few years ago, in a piece for Ovum about the long-term future of telecoms and all that, I segmented the consumer market into three categories: Digital Citizens, the mainstream consumers of media content and applications; Digital Metics, those largely excluded from the digital world by reason of poverty, transience, lack of skills, or even choice; and Digital Outlaws, who rejected the mainstream world for a DIY ethic and an interest in encryption, open source, free content, and so on.

I thought of myself as belonging in the latter category, even though I’m not that much of a hacker. I used Linux (Ubuntu) on my personal laptop. I used a G-Box for my smart TV. I got my content through BitTorrent kind of on principle. I even used an alternative version of Android on my Samsung smartphone.

In the space of about a week I’ve ended up turning my back on almost all that. My new laptop, an Asus X550C, won’t play nicely with Ubuntu (it won’t recognise the wireless connection, or even install properly). We despaired of the G-Box, which needed to be rebooted almost every time we used it, and made it fiendishly difficult to add a new channel ever, and we bought a Chromecast instead, which has turned out to be rather brilliant and really simple to use. Ruth got herself a Netflix subscription. And I got a new Samsung phone, and I can’t face going through the tortuous process of installing Cyanogenmod on it when it’s working quite well at the moment and I can’t think what the actual benefits would be.

Right now I don’t think this is a permanent change of mindset, but perhaps the mindset will follow where the behaviour has led. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review of 'Hannah Arendt'

Watching this film reminded me of all the things that I liked, and hated, about reading 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'. The film focuses on the critical response, especially by New York Jews and Israelis, to the book; Arendt has to deal with the fact that lots of people, including some of her close friends, hated the book and thought that she was making excuses for Eichmann.

In that regard, the point she was making seems itself to be a bit banal nowadays. We understand that racism does not require that individual racists hate with a passion; we can conceive of a system that is racist without the necessity for personal hatred. Arendt made the same point about Eichmann; he wasn't a personal anti-semite. Lots of people seem to have misinterpreted this, some of them wilfully.

We also see her making the point about the complicity of some Jewish leaders in helping to facilitate the organisation of the holocaust. In the film this is presented as a personal accusation that she has made; in reality it was observation of what happened at the trial. The book makes unhappy reading for those that want the story of the Holocaust to be a straightforward morality play with evil persecutors and wholly innocent victims. But the historical facts and not really in dispute, only how they should be thought about.

Indeed, much of this had already been raised by the 1954 Kastner trial, which revealed how much Jewish leaders, including Zionist leaders, had been compromised by the decisions they made about who lived and who died. This is very uncomfortable reading for many (if not most) Jews, who would rather just not think about this. Part of the negative reaction to Arendt, and then to the various anti-Zionists writers like Jim Allen who brought this up as part of a critique of Zionism, is down to this.

Not all, mind; there is a degree of moral sadism in the way that anti-Zionists raise the issue in the wilful absence of an understanding of the context, as if the Jewish or Zionist leaders in question made these awful decisions in comfort. It is almost as if they want to make some sort of equivalence between the responsibility of the Jewish leaders and the responsibility of the Nazis.

Arendt, to her credit, never did that, and the film makes this point very eloquently, not least in the set-piece lecture at the university, where a young female student asks her about this. But what is doesn't do is to highlight the tone of the book, especially the earlier parts, where Arendt writes with distaste about the histrionics of the trial; why are the Israelis allowing witnesses to testify about their experiences of the Holocaust when this can have no bearing on the guilt or innocence of Eichmann as an individual? That bit of the book really stank for me, and the film doesn't seem to notice that it happened.

The film does convey that Arendt was part of a small elite of very German Jews, who felt themselves to be part of the great sweep of German culture. It doesn't explain that most Jews in the West, and in Israel, are not part of that small band.

Review of 'Boyhood'

A nice-ish coming of age sort of film...a bit shapeless, and sort of long, really, like real life. The remarkable thing is that the film-makers managed to get the actors, including the main actor (the eponymous boy) to stay with the project while the character aged from 8 to 18. Other than that nothing very exciting happens; the mom gets divorced a few times, moves in with some crap men and then moves out again, the boy does some alcohol and some weed. Normal life. Watchable, but not especially moving; it ends with the boy just going off to college and meeting his room-mate and next girlfriend.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review of 'The Wind Rises'

A film that is both beautiful and a bit vacuous, like the central character – the real-life aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who spent his life designing military aircraft even though, at least in the film, he is portrayed as unenthusiastic about the military aspects of aviation. But this doesn't translate into much of a conflict; he just gets on with it, though he is occasionally wistful about making weapons of mass destruction.

It's a pleasure to look at, and to listen to – I really enjoyed the music. It's Miyazaki's last film, apparently, and is also based on a manga book that he created on the same subject. But it is a bit flat emotionally, and even a bit boring sometimes.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review of "Rushmore"

This is obviously pulling out all the stops in an effort to be 'quirky', and not quite achieving it. Well, it's Wes Anderson, that's what he is for.

The central character, the 15-year old Max Fisher, is a remarkable young man with many extraordinary and frankly implausible achievements; but he is also a fantasist with a propensity to self-delusion (not least in the belief that he has a romantic relationship with a young female teacher at the school); and the film doesn't want to decide how much it is about the self-delusion and how much about the remarkable achievements. The fact that the first sequence, about young Max solving a very difficult problem in geometry, is quickly shown to be a fantasy/dream, but that almost none of the other equally implausible things in the film are meant to be taken as fantasy, adds to the confusion. 

Incidentally, there is almost no politics in the film at all, and nothing about revolution, despite the poster. This looks like a poster for the subsequent and slightly better film 'The Trotsky', which does feature a high-school kid who believes himself to be a revolutionary, and is also quirky but...well, you know.

It's got good actors and characters, an interesting scenario, but the premise doesn't quite work.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Review of Mood Indigo

Well, that's 90 minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. Actually not quite that much, because I slept through some of it, so that time wasn't entirely wasted. The time spent watching the film was, though – pretentious self-indulgent rubbish. A number of people walked out, and I might have, but I didn't want to wake up the two people with whom I'd gone to see it.

The fact that it was so bad was made worse by the fact that every so often there was a genuinely striking visual element. I liked the rows of people typing at moving typewriters as an image of the Fates, and the insect-like doorbell.

I really liked Gondry's “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which I thought was genuinely clever and enjoyable. But I should have remembered that he also made 'The Science of Sleep', which was as dire as this.

I am beginning to suspect that Audrey Tatou is a film indicator; if she's in it then it won't be any good. Not an entirely reliable one, mind, because Amelie was enjoyable and A Very Long Engagement was really good.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review of “The Gatekeepers"

I watched this last night. I'd been avoiding it for a long time, as I avoid most things to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Why put yourself through the misery of engagement when it has so little chance of achieving anything positive? I haven't taken part in any of the discussions on Facebook or elsewhere, I haven't attended any of the demonstrations or shown solidarity with anyone, aware that I am censoring myself because I no longer have the energy to confront or even discuss.

The film reinforced me in my views, as I am sure it reinforces others, even with different views. The interviews with the six former heads of Shin Bet (the Israeli internal security service) are very candid – much more so than their British counterparts would be. They talk about operations they have planned and been involved in, the briefs they were given, and most of all their opinions about the politicians who should have been directing them – but mainly weren't.

Like most real people, their views are a mess of contradictions. At some point they condemn their own actions and those of others as unethical, at other times they despise the idea that ethics or morality could ever enter into counter-terrorism. They all view their political masters as weak, duplicitous and devoid of ideas – except for Yitzhak Rabin, who nobody seemed to have a bad word for.

The treatment of the Rabin years was the most unbearable part of the film to watch, because it reinforced my view that the Oslo Process could have worked. For a short window there was real will among the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to achieve a way that their respective peoples could live together; maybe not Justice, but Peace. Many of my friends think that Oslo was always doomed because it didn't address the fundamentals, but I have never agreed with this. I think the film backs me up. It might have been possible to get Israelis and Palestinians living together, and invested in the absence of war, without addressing the really hard issues straight away.

Oslo was destroyed by the Israeli religious and nationalist right, and by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, very deliberately, because both believed that time was on their side and war would bring them a better outcome than peace.

And both war parties had the ideological high ground in their communities. The vicious murderers of the 'Jewish Underground', whom the Shin Bet initially targeted and neutralized, were pardoned and released as 'our own flesh and blood' by the mainstream Israeli establishment. Hamas – equally murderous, and equally committed to destroying the Oslo agreements -- were able to present themselves as the continuation of the Palestinian resistance, when Fatah and the PLO had 'sold out' to Zionism. By targeting buses in Tel Aviv, Hamas were striking directly at those most likely to be the Israeli supporters of Oslo – not at the settlers, or the military, or the nationalist right. When Hamas and its supporters talk about civilian casualties in Gaza, it's worth remembering that this was their chosen tactic to destroy Oslo.

It was truly unbearable to watch this film now, as Israeli bombs and missiles fall on Gaza, and my friends and family in Israel for the most part fall over themselves in their efforts to line up behind a strategy that is as cruel as it is stupid. The worst part is the missed opportunity, which all the heads of Shin Bet seemed to have appreciated. As John Cleese said in a rather different film, I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review of "The Saragossa Manuscript"

Watched this yesterday, as part of the 'research' for the sequel to One Shoe Tale – last saw it at Sussex University in 1976, when it was shown by the Film Society. Then, I thought it was magical, and I was not disappointed this time.

Mystical, surreal, beautiful, and still a good yarn – or rather an increasingly complex sequence of nested good yarns. Not terribly PC; Edward Said would doubtless take offence at the orientalism, and I'm sure that some viewers might not enjoy the rather charged eroticism.

But it is just great, and I feel validated that in the time since I last watched it Martin Scorsese and others have funded the creation of a new print. They obviously like it too.

Oddly, the book on which it is based is really short, and the film does not cover everything that is in the book, and yet it's a really long film. And also oddly, though most of the nested stories are resolved so that we go back to the story in which they are told, the film ends inside the first level of nesting; we don't go back to the original frame tale, in which the manuscript is found. Does the fact that I find this mildly annoying say more about me than it does about the film?

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Why I take pictures of war memorials

Why I post pictures of war memorials

I find war memorials really poignant. I take pictures of every one that I come across; it's become a bit of a tic. It's my tiny way of honouring the people – usually young men – who died, like leaving a little stone on the grave; but it's also a way of making a statement about war and the pity of war.

Most memorials are about the First World War – WW1 or the Great War, if you prefer. There are few hamlets in Europe so small as to not have a memorial to soldiers who died in this war. Since I've tuned in to them I am struck by just how many memorials there are – in schools, colleges, workplaces, railway stations, gardens. Part of the point of taking and posting the pictures is to mark the sheer volume of the memorials. By taking pictures of every one that I encounter I try to convey some sort of comment on the sheer volume of the slaughter. Like the end scene in 'Oh What a Lovely War'; one memorial might glorify war, but hundreds or thousands can't.

Most Western European monuments have a little add-on for WW2, and sometimes for subsequent wars; for Britain and France, the casualties of WW1 far outstrip those who died in WW2. But I've also found memorials for the Crimean War and the Boer War, with great columns of names of young men who died. In Italy I've found Risorgimento memorials, and in Milan railway station there is a Fascist memorial to the young men who died subduing Ethiopia; it is right next to a memorial to young Italian anti-fascist partisans, concretizing the way that Italy manages to have it both ways.

I've seen some unusual ones – there's a memorial to Portuguese soliders who died on the Western Front in Brussels, and I didn't even know that Portugal had been in the First World War. In one small town in Italy I found town with a plaque commemorating the fact that all the young men who had gone off to the war had returned safely.

I take the pictures because they help me to resolve something of a contradiction in the way I feel about the wars. I am, for the most part, against war – though not all wars. I have little sympathy or admiration for the politicians who send young people off to fight and kill. I don't much like the institutions of the military. But I respect the soldiers, and their bravery and their comradeship, even if I don't always think much of the purpose for which they were sacrificed. What can we feel about the Crimean War now, except sorrow for the young men who died in it?

Taking pictures and posting them helps me to resolve this. Partly I think it's because the memorials inevitably subvert their own purpose. The point of the memorials is to commemorate the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in the memorialized war, and thus to make that sacrifice – and future sacrifices – seem glorious.

But the permanence of the memorials, and the long list of names of dead boys which outlast any personal commemoration can't help but remind the onlooker that their names don't live for evermore. The world goes on, the war dead are for the most part forgotten. Those who survive get on with their lives, apart from ritualized remembrance. The first picture I ever took, of a war memorial on a small church in Elsworthy Road, Swiss Cottage, summed it up perfectly; the head of the surmounting angel had come off, and it bore the motto 'Their names liveth for evermore', but the names themselves had been eroded by pollution and were unreadable. It has since been restored, but it was the unrestored one that had the most poignancy and meaning for me.

So the war memorials actually constitute – for me, anyway – a statement against war. So I'll keep taking and posting the pictures.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Review of Les Chansons d'Amour

Mild and slightly pointless French romcom with a pretty young man in a three-way relationship with two pretty young women, who has to endure the death of one of the women and then subsequently discovers he's gay and ends up in a relationship with a pretty young Finnish boy. Lots of musical interludes that don't really fit. Liberal, affectionate, but a bit boring.

Review of Spy Game

Came to this one a bit late, watched it on DVD, but really hated it - a spew of American cultural superiority, with Robert Redford as someone rejecting the values of the institution to which he has devoted his life - the CIA - and sacrificing everything including his pension - to save a younger man who he has recruited and manipulated, and to whom he now feels he owes some sort of debt of honour.

Just horrible, especially the faux-liberal concern about the having to kill lots of "rag-heads" in the pursuit of the greater good. Not much angst about the people who get killed in the implausible raid on a Chinese prison that our hero organises for the movie's finale.

Review of Maps to the Stars

I watched 'Maps to the Stars' at a little cinema in Perpignan and was stunned. This is a really good film that seems to have made very little impact – perhaps it hasn't even been released in the UK yet, though why an english-language film should be released first in France escapes me.

It is a very dark account of celebrity culture, with horrible Hollywood folk managing their careers and each other against a background of incest, self-mutilation, drug abuse and recovery. There is a bit of consolation misery going on – the rich and famous have such miserable lives, all that wealth and fame doesn't make them happy after all. But it does bring out the weirdness of a world in which one's fortune really can be at the same time huge but also dependent on a very fragile kind of reputation capital – and one that's reproduced by a process that is both very much about personal relationships and also complex and mysterious to the participants.

The acting is great, the script and the filming really good too.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

On bereavement

My dad, Norman Green, died on 23rd June 2014. We were on holiday in France when my mum phoned to tell me the news, and we were home within about eight hours. I didn't say much, or feel much, during the journey home. Ruth did most of the practical stuff – dealing with Ryanair, for example, who were surprisingly decent. The nuts and bolts of getting home seemed to consume most of my mental energy, of which there wasn't much.

I hadn't had much preparation for bereavement. No-one close to me had died since my grandmother in the early 1980s. Then, I'd not felt anything until the funeral and the final sight of her coffin, at which I had cried and cried and been unable to stop. I didn't cry at my dad's funeral, though I came close the night before, sleeping on the floor of what I must now learn to call my mum's flat. From time to time I have felt ashamed that I haven't felt more sad. Some people say that this is normal and that it will hit me later; we have talked about whether it was because in some sense the progress of dad's dementia meant that we had already adjusted to the fact that he was no longer with us. I don't know.

Leon and I had a discussion about whether it was acceptable to post a message about dad's death on Facebook. In the end I decided that it was OK, and I am extremely glad that I did. The messages of condolence and support that I received were very welcome. I was really grateful for them, and will try to do the same for others in the future. I never realised how important they could be, and how little it matters what the actual words are.

We all felt very well looked after by my mum and dad's synagogue. I've been to funerals where a rabbi has delivered a lame and impersonal eulogy to someone that they self-confessedly didn't know, but nothing like that happened here. The officials at the ceremony were really kind and supportive – it helped that the main functionary was Scottish and  looked and sounded like a Jewish version of Sean Connery.

The rabbi was happy for Leon and I to say a few words ourselves. There had been something of a comedy moment the night before the funeral, when he counselled us that there were some things to which our eulogies could not refer; any enjoyment that dad had taken from eating non-kosher food, or any pleasure he had derived from mixed dancing. Although these  had indeed been among dad's favourite things we managed not to mention then, though the rabbi had looked distinctly nervous when Leon began the lead-in to a joke about a rabbi and a Catholic priest on a train.

Although I do a lot of talking for a living I wasn't at all prepared to give a eulogy for my dad, even though I had imagined myself doing exactly that from time to time. But I managed to say how much of what I considered important in myself had been formed in early conversations with my dad. He brought me up to be against racism from a very early age.

He was a visceral, tribal socialist, and would have cut his hand off before he allowed it to vote anything except Labour. The basics, he explained, were that the Tories wanted high unemployment and low wages, and Labour wanted the opposite. When I was still really little he enjoyed telling me how Nye Bevan had called the Tories vermin. And when I rather mindlessly repeated what the TV news had said about trade unions, dad had told me that working people needed unions to defend themselves against bad and unreasonable employers. Although he had put himself through night school to qualify as an optician, and was therefore both a professional and a businessman, he continued to think of himself as a working class person who done well, not as someone who had risen out of his class.

Like everyone, he was a man of his time. He had liberal views on homosexuality – I can remember him telling me that it was wrong to discriminate against or punish people for how they were born. He never really got feminism or women's rights, though Ruth and her mother schlapped him to Greenham for a CND demonstration. I can remember his bewildered expression as a group of protesters chanted 'no men' at us, who had come there to support them. He couldn't understand  why they would do that, and as I tried to explain it to him realised that I couldn't either.

Dad was not a bloke-ish man. He was mainly uninterested in sport, though he liked to watch boxing and took me to watch “professional wrestling” at the Metropole in Brighton when I was small. He didn't care much about cars, though he'd been proud to own a Jaguar for a few years, as a sign that he had done well for himself. He resolutely refused to do DIY, insisting on his inability to do anything with his hands, even change a light bulb or a plug. Of course, as a man of his time he never did any housework at all – it would be wrong to say he refused to do it, because my mum has been a woman of her time and would never have asked him. In his later years he often asked if there was anything he could do to help her, but he wouldn't have been capable of finding the dishwasher, much less loading or unloading it.

His non-blokeishness extended to his love of children. He was really, really happy to play with little children, to make funny faces and noises for them, play peek-a-boo, and so on. He loved all of his five grandchildren – Louis, Lexei, Juliana, Raquel and Selin. He was proud to have been present for the birth of his own children at a time when the expectation was that 'expectant fathers' paced up and down outside the delivery room.

First and foremost dad was an anti-fascist, of the physical force kind. Of everything that he done in his life he was most proud of his time in the 43 Group. I don't think he was a physical brave man, despite his long participation in various kinds of martial arts training, which makes his involvement in street-fighting all the more special. He loved that he had been part of the group, constantly read and re-read Morris Beckman's book about it, and was always happy when he had the opportunity to talk about it with a new audience.

As he got older our views diverged, and we disagreed about Israel and Zionism in particular. But I loved him all the same, now as much as ever, even though I will never hear his voice again.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Review of "Two Faces of January"

Much better than I'd been led to expect - a nice, taut thriller with plenty of tension and suspense without implausible plotting or ridiculous stunts. Just good characters involved in a plot that could almost happen to anyone (apart from the defrauding big-time gamblers in New York - that couldn't happen to most people).

Review of "Search for Sugar Man"

Watched this remarkable film on iPlayer (from BBC4) last night. The story of a hispanic-american musician and songwriter whose career fails, and then discovers years later that he had had a massive following in South Africa, a country he had never visited, where his records circulated in bootlegs but also legal copies from which he received no royalties.

A couple of fans wonder what ever happened to him, amid rumours that he committed suicide live on stage. But they track him down and find him live and impoverished in Detroit, where he works as a day-labourer doing demolition for construction firms.

That would be amazing enough. It's made more remarkable because:
  • the guy - Sixto Rodriguez - was important to several generations of young white South Africans as part of the process by which they distanced themselves from the prevailing repressive White culture and political system
  • and he seems to have been utterly at peace with his lack of musical success - to have become a worker-poet with a degree of engagement in local politics
  • and when, at the film's conclusion, they bring him to South Africa to perform a series of concerts to his huge fan base, he is every inch a rock star - not cowed or hesitant at all, and totally on top of his material and his performance.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Figs, haemorrhoids and Israelites

I went to this rather interesting set of talks at the Royal College of Physicians,
which included a tour round the garden. One of the highlights was an explication of the Doctrine of Signatures - the idea that the Almighty had cleverly signposted what plants might cure particular conditions by making them look like they would. So figs are good for haemorrhoids, and haemorrhoids look like figs. At least they did to people in the C16th - so much so that the word 'fig' meant a haemorrhoid. When Shakespeare makes characters say "I care not a fig" he was being just a bit ruder than I suspected, though this post makes it all a bit more complicated.

It did rather make me wonder about the golden haemorrhoids which the Philistines apparently placed in the Ark of the Covenant when they sent it back to the Israelites via express oxen-post, as described in 1 Samuel 6:4. The King James version gives this as emerods, but it is clearly meant to be haemorrhoids, as the more recent translations indicate. Perhaps the King James translators just mistook the text's figs for haemorrhoids, and the Philistines were putting golden figs in the ark. Any thoughts, anyone? I asked the speaker (Dr Henry Oakley, a Garden Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians) but he didn't even know about the haemorrhoids in the Ark, much less whether they were really figs. Is this an example of the dumbing down of medical education?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Using a Globastar phone in Wales

More than fifteen years ago I worked in the mobile satellite services industry, helping to develop a handheld satellite phone business. ICO Global Communications, the company that I worked for never made it to service launch; but part of my role was competitor intelligence, so I had the opportunity to use an Iridium phone during a holiday in Morocco. Then, the phone was huge and vaguely weapon-like, the service was dreadful even on a beach with a huge sky, and I also found cellular coverage wherever I went – even in the Atlas Mountains.

Still, I was a bit thrilled to have the chance to try out a Globalstar handheld last week. The Pembrokeshire coastal path turns out to be much less well covered by cellular signal in 2014 than the Atlas Mountains were in 1998, and I badly needed to keep in touch with my parents because my father was unwell.

The Globalstar phone, a GSP-1700, was much cuter. It still had the solid, rotatable aerial, but extending it no longer looked like I was deploying a ground-to-air missile. The phone itself was about the size and shape of a mid-1990s cellular phone with a similar monochrome look and feel. It was lighter, though, and with a pleasant hand-feel.

It was really easy to use – I never looked at the manual or documentation – and worked very well once I'd got used to the fact that it did take a little longer to acquire a signal. It didn't work in the shadow of buildings or under wet trees, but other than that it was reliable and straightforward.

And the voice quality was great – clear and with no perceptible delay or echo. Much better than the voice quality that I got when I did occasionally pick up cellular signal, and actually better than much of my experience with cellular even in urban areas. The phone really did help me to 'connect with family even when my adventures took me out of coverage', just like it says in the PR material.

Nice to know that the mobile satellite service industry came right in the end, even without the benefit of my contribution.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Revew of Adaptation

A really weird one, this. Focusing on the process of adapting a book for a film, and illustrating the difficulties of this rather well, it also details the miseries of introversion (indecision, fear of humiliation), and sibling rivalry (Nick Cage plays the screenwriter and his twin brother). Bits of it are really uncomfortable to watch, but it's oddly compelling. It's well made, and the acting is good. It changes pace and tone towards the end, but that's part of the point and the frame-joke.

I suspect that there are lots of Hollywood in-jokes in it, and could imagine watching it again with someone more knowledgeable explaining them all to me.

Review of Tracks

Robyn Davidson wants to walk across the central Australian desert from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with camels. She does. The end.

This is a surprisingly straightforward narrative. We don't get much insight into what the journey meant to Davidson (there is a bit of exorcising inner demons from her mother's death, but not much). Early on she says she is drawn to the beauty of the desert, but most of the time she just scowls at it and wipes her sweaty brow with the back of her hand.

There aren't many characters, and there isn't much tension. The romantic relationship promised by the poster on this page (not used in the UK, I think) is not delivered; she has the odd shag with the photographer appointed by her sponsor, but it's a bit perfunctory.

We know she's going to make it, and that sense of certainty is never undermined. Quite how she manages this while apparently walking naked, without a hat or even sunscreen, and in the most inappropriate footwear you could imagine, is the only real mystery.

The music is nice but the desert looks horrible for the most part.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review of "Free Men/Les Hommes Libres"

A good, serious film about a subject that I'd never heard about - the way that the Muslim community of Paris helped Jews escape from Vichy and Nazi round--ups by supplying them with false certification "proving" that they were Muslims. It's a true story; some of the characters in the film are historical people, others (including the main character) are composites of several people.

Moving, tense, well shot - though some of the dialogue seems a bit clunky; perhaps it's the subtitles rather than the original script. Interesting that the relationship between Younes and Salim, which is so central to the plot, is  so little explored. Salim is gay, and Younes is clearly surprised and upset to discover this, yet there seems to be a dimension to their mutual attraction that goes beyond friendship.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review of The Love Punch: Worst film I've seen in many a long year

I can handle the odd romcom, and this one sounded like it might be tolerable. It wasn't. A trip to the dentist would be more enjoyable. Avoid at all costs. Stay in, wash your hair, whatever.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

IOT 14 in Cambridge

I went to this. I can't remember the last time I found a public event of this kind so interesting and so much fun. Fantastic speakers, great venue (who wants to spend a day in the dreary subterranean basement of another corporate hotel?), superb organisation, and a really nice bouncy spirit in the way the sessions were organised and chaired. Just brilliant. Other conference event organizers should watch, and probably watch out.

I hope to post another piece about what was most interesting, but didn't want to leave it another day.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Another day, another low power wireless company

Six months ago I didn't know any companies pursuing this opportunity, even though some of them have been at it for a while and have successful implementations to point at. Now I fall over them all the time, and suddenly the industry mainstream, including proper grown-equipment vendors and even network operators want to talk about this.

The company du jour is Senaptic, which has just come out of stealth mode, having been incubated within equipment vendor Plextek. The latter is precisely one of those companies that has been ploughing the low-power IoT furrow for years - 25, to be precise. Its technology is deployed in the LoJack vehicle tracking system, in a smart parking system in Moscow, and is also used by Telensa in supporting smarter street lights in British cities.

Unlike fellow low-power wireless provider Sigfox Senaptic aims to be a technology provider, not a network operator. It plans to sell systems to organisations (mainly enterprises, but also local authorities) to use for their own purposes - tracking, monitoring, controlling, whatever. So there is no need for the kind of OSS that a public network would require, to provision devices, manage their subscriptions, bill for usage etc.
But it's not 'merely' a connectivity play - it also offers a platform that does include an OSS, applications, and of course devices.

At the moment Senaptic has only six employees, though the system is still supported by staff within Plextek. In the slightly longer run it aims to have about 100 people.