Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review of “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Pleasant romcom with some nice characters and a few good jokes – or rather one good one, developed to the full. A group of women set up a book group to read the works of Jane Austen, and find themselves slipping into Austen-esque roles and situations – the more so since they have recruited a young cool dude to join the group and read Austen with them, even though he’s a science fiction fan. If you can swallow that the film is nice.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review of Brasslands

I've been meaning to watch this for ages, as compensation for deciding not to go to the Guca festival itself (Ruth decidedly lukewarm, and the idea of trying to take trains to the migrant crisis frontline somehow seems both unkind and potential uncomfortable).

Watching the film I feel better about the decision. Guca looks like a pissed-up version of the nastiest English funfair you can imagine, with lots of beer tents, burger vans and hog roasts, only with a huge arena and main stage for some of the best music on the planet. Serbian culture, at least as represented here, is not all that attractive to an outsider – it’s about ethnic nationalism, Orthodox religion, and the consumption of vast quantities of pork and booze. There are pictures of saints and military heroes, including Radovan Karadzic. Not much sign of Yugo-nostalgia, lots of flags with double-headed eagles.

And yet the music is so, so wonderful – a bit like klezmer but with more dynamic and tonal variation, and with fabulous infectious percussion rhythms. The film follows a New York group that plays Serbian music even though none of them are of Serbian or Slavic extraction – quite a few are obviously Jewish; they are captivated by the music but not unreflective about the culture from which it comes, including the fact they are the only band with women musicians. It also follows two Serbian bands vying for the ‘best band’ prize; these are characterized by the Serbs as a ‘black’ band – meaning it’s from the South and seems to mainly include Roma players, and a ‘white’ band – paler, beefier crop-haired men. There’s a bit of discussion about how the music of the two streams differs. The ‘black’ band also needs to play at the tables of the beer tents for money.

A good, thoughtful music documentary – I'm only sorry there wasn't more concert footage.

Review of Pitch Perfect

A better than average American college movie, with some romcom and some buddy-movie elements. Too-cool girl goes to college (she wants to move to LA and pursue her career as a DJ/music producer, but college-professor dad gets free tuition for his kids and won’t let her waste it), is too cool to join the girls’ a capella singing group but is forced to give everything a go by the dad, ends up liking it and finding true love with the slightly nerdy boy from the rival boys’ singing group. Quite a few good visual and verbal jokes – I especially liked Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy. Also some barf jokes, and some implausible singing scenes, but overall much more enjoyable than I expected.

I watched this as it was broadcast on Film4; looking it up I was mildly pleased to discover that there’s a sequel.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review of "Star Wars: the force awaken"

Went to see this yesterday, with my sons, their friend, and my nephew - all in their twenties. We watched it at an Imax cinema in 3D, and we were seated in row B - almost at the front, and too close to the screen for comfort really. The 3D effects were occasionally interesting (mainly in the opening graphics) but were often just a bit uncomfortable - most of the close-up head-shots looked out of focus.

The film itself had all the qualities of a pantomime; familiar characters doing familiar things, in exactly the way that the audience expected. Perhaps the predictability is part of the charm, though it didn't do much for me. Lots of it looked very much like the first film, and their were reprises from some of the others too - what is it with this franchise and Oedipal conflicts?

Funny how the bad guys keep re-inventing themselves with new evil names, but don't do anything about their design - the stormtroopers still look the same, the uniforms on the bridge of the death star are the same - oh, and they don't even bother to fix the design flaws on the death star that makes it so vulnerable to attack by silly lighter X-wing fighters with minuscule bombs.

We had the bar scene, the fight on the high gantry, the bit were the goodies are taken prisoner on the death star (they escaped so quickly I missed the whole prisoner episode while rooting around for some popcorn).

The action was diverting, but the plot was laughable and the characters not very interesting. The locations were more interesting than the special effects. I'm glad I went because it's a cultural phenomenon, and I miss out on most of those, but it was, in the words of Adam Leach, "a bit shit".

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review of 'Mary Poppins'

Watched for the first time in many years, via a laptop, VGA cable, and projector, on the big screen in the Common House at Springhill Cohousing; the film was obtained via an informal distribution system.

I don't think I ever watched this with my own kids (not the sort of thing that they would have liked at any point, I think) so it was the first time I'd seen it since I was about six. I remembered being really scared at the part where the children run away in the City of London, and seeing it again I still understood why. Remarkable to see the depiction of alleyways and courts, all done - like the roofscape scenes - without CGI.

I'm sure someone has done a critical analysis of the film, which I think is about the emergence of new models of family - the father and mother are depicted as wrongly directed towards the outside world (he to his career, her to her involvement in the Suffragette movement), and must learn that they should be focused instead on the inner life of the family and the care of their children. The happy ending is the father being happy to be sacked from his job at the bank, and the mother giving up her Suffragette sash so that it can be used as a tail for the children's kite. And then the father gets made a partner at the bank (which comes to him because he doesn't care about it any more), though the mother doesn't achieve women's suffrage as part of the same happy ending.

Review of 'Still Alice"

I watched this on our TV, via Chromecast and Netflix. It's a very well made film, but I found it really upsetting. It's about a case of early onset Alzheimer's in an intelligent, ambitious, driven 50-year old woman academic. Seeing her too-rapid degeneration, of which she is only too aware, is very painful to watch. Julianne Moore plays the part very well. The confusion, the repetition - especially of questions - reminded me of my dad's degeneration, and reminded me too that I was not as kind as I should have been. The film depicts the impact on the family too, who all try to do their best but also want to get on with their own lives, even as Alice realizes that her life as the person she is, is coming to an end. Unbearable.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'

I didn't like this very much. Rather like Harold, I felt compelled to finish what I'd started, but it was really a hard slog. There were parts that I liked, and I didn't feel able to give up, but I couldn't say the experience was enjoyable.

That's partly because it touches on subjects that are uncomfortable. I'm aware that as a bloke I am inclined to avoid books that are emotionally difficult in favour of those with intellectually interesting subject matter, evocative atmospheres or complex plots that are like puzzles. I don't often read things that deal with difficult feelings, particularly feelings about stuff that is difficult for me personally - and this has lots of that. Death of loved ones, ageing and dementia, relationships between fathers and sons, love between partners, suppressed anger at work...so some of my discomfort in reading the book might have been about that.

But it's uncomfortable in another way too. Like lots of 'walking across England' books (mainly non-fiction) this is a state of the nation book, and Rachel Joyce looks and England and doesn't much like what she sees. A lot of the time it felt like sneering to me. Part of the point of the main character is that he is emotionally constipated, that he feels much but does not express it or deal with it. But that's overlaid with the idea that this is function of his lower-middle-class outlook and tastes. It seems to me to come from the same place that once found ceramic flying ducks on a sitting-room wall to be screamingly funny, before they became ironic and thus a signifier of good (i.e. metropolitan) taste. The author is mainly sympathetic to 'ordinary' people, but I can't help thinking that she finds their tastes both sad and funny, and that we are meant to do the same.

And some of the plot devices are frankly clunky. I might have let them go if I was enjoying it anyway but I wasn't, so they were annoying. Half the time Harold is emotionally illiterate, and then he sits down and writes a long and heartfelt letter to a virtual stranger (the girl in the garage) that ties up the various loose plot ends that haven't been explicitly revealed. And the girl then takes the letter to show it to Harold's wife. I know it's fiction, but still.

Review of 'The Crusades: a very short introduction'

Very disappointed with this, and I think it is part of a general trend with the 'very short introduction' series - they are often not introductions at all. The language of this is tortured and unsuitable for a general reader who isn't used to the funny way academics write for each other. It assumes a lot of knowledge. I think it's partial too. That might seem odd in the context of a book about the Crusades, but as the author himself points out, they are a live issue now. The book 'The Crusades through Arab Eyes' doesn't make it into the bibliography, and neither does that perspective, though we hear that the Outremer lords weren't any worse than their Turkish equivalents. There is some interesting stuff about the doctrine of Holy War and Just War, and its origins in the Old Testament and Roman Law.

I note in passing that he thinks the Crusades left no permanent legacy in the region apart from the monumental - the various castles. I'm no expert but I wonder if that is true in terms of the genetics of the Palestinian population (quite a few blue-eyed Palestinians) or the practices of the local Christians.

Review of 'Death at the Blue Elephant'

Janeen Webb is a good writer with a wild imagination. That's my conclusion after reading the whole collection - but I was tempted to give up after the first few stories, which I didn't really enjoy. But I pressed on, and the later ones are really, really good. I especially liked 'Niagra Falling', which is set in a future Japan-dominated world, and 'The Fire Eater's Tale', both co-written with Jack Dann. I'll look out for more by the author, and also seek out some of the collections in which these stories appeared.

Review of 'Bridge of Spies'

A suspense thriller without much suspense or thrills, this was nevertheless enjoyable to watch, if only for the way that the environment of the early 1960s in the US and Berlin has been so lovingly recreated. The politics are pretty liberal - Tom Hanks respects the spy he is defending as an honourable soldier, Mark Rylance is brilliant as the self-effacing but self-disciplined spy, the morals about personal loyalty and decency under conditions of adversity. The Soviets behave well within the rules of the Cold War (though it seems that their interrogation techniques are much less gentle than those of the Americans - I wonder whether there are any proper studies on this?), virtue is rewarded, and so on.

The plot bowls along so that it doesn't drag, but as I said there isn't much tension. We don't know for sure whether the spy swap will go through, or what will happen to the Soviet spy afterwards, but I have to say by that point I didn't care all that much.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review of 'Langue[dot]doc 1305'

This is an enjoyable time-travel science fiction novel, mainly set in the 1300s in Languedoc. It's about a scientific mission, but there's more academic politicking than science - which suits me fine, because in so far as there is any real time-travel science I don't have a hope of understanding it. I can relate to office politics, and to medieval studies - and it does both of these rather well. Lots of humour and nice descriptions of both the scientists and the villagers, and quite a lot of thought about how travellers from the future would appear to medieval villagers. A very Australian book, especially in the language - I wonder whether the author did this deliberately or unthinkingly. Anyway, that made it more enjoyable for me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of 'Measuring the World'

An enjoyable historical novel, mainly about the characters of the two men - Humboldt and Gauss - who each seem to have been insufferable in their own way. Lots of detail and some insight into what it must feel like to be cleverer than everyone you ever meet; sensitive depiction of the plight of poor old Bonpland, Humboldt's companion on his voyages, who went through all the misery but gets none of the credit. It's suggested that Humboldt was gay, though very much in passing.

Review of 'Black Mist: And Other Japanese Futures'

I bought this because I'd read one of the stories from the collection, Niagara Falling, in another collection, and I liked it so much that I thought...well, you know. But as it turns out, that was the best story in this collection. I also liked the Pad Cadigan story, Tea from an Empty Cup, but I'd read that before too. Some of the others are OK - I liked the last one, thirteen Views of Higher Edo, but they mostly feel very dated for future-facing science fiction...after 20 years of stagnation the idea that Japan will dominate the economic and technological future seems just implausible.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review of 'A Woman in Winter'

Watched on an old-fashioned DVD borrowed from the library. I was tempted to give this up after about fifteen minutes, because it seemed so pretentious (and confusing). But I'm glad I stayed with it. It's moody and atmospheric, and creepy without any stupid horror themes. There is a suspicion - unsubstantiated - that the main character is losing his mind, but this is not done in a heavy-handed or crass way. There are lots of time-travel themes, but again they aren't over-explained. The dialogue is not particularly good, but I liked the filming and the locations. I'm not any sort of scientist, but I thought the depictions of scientists and their squabbles was pretty good too.

Time well spent, and I'd recommend this one.

Small note about presentation: the cover shows the crests of the prizes for which it was nominated; it didn't actually win any prizes. That feels a bit of a cheat.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review of 'The Lady in the Van'

Perfectly crafted British 'character' film, based on Alan Bennett's play. Watched on a big screen at the Vue cinema in Stroud, though it wouldn't have suffered much from being seen on TV.

The acting is great, the script very well written...sometimes the filming is a bit slow, but really it's a gem. Very poignant, brings up a lot of stuff about ageing, treatment of the mentally ill, the meagre 'comforts' offered by organised religion...just great.

It would be interesting to know whether non-British people could possibly enjoy this.

Small personal note - after my Dad closed his shop and went into semi-retirement he started doing locum work at an optical practice in Parkway, Camden Town. Alan Bennett was one of the customers, and Dad adjusted his glasses and I think made him a new pair. Dad was full of praise for what a nice man AB was.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review of 'Tears for Sale'

I watched this, via download, last weekend. I'd been meaning to for a while, and was not disappointed. Balkan magical realism (some supernatural stuff, including ghosts and witches), fantastic and fantastical cinematography, beautiful strong women characters, tremendous music, and a story line set in post WW1-Serbia. Some lovely contraptions that suggest a steampunk aesthetic, great costumes and moustaches. Great bar and drinking scenes.

In some ways it's the film I've been expecting from Terry Gilliam for years, and which he has consistently failed to deliver.

In a spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that a week later I don't remember it very well. It's a visual and visceral experience rather than an intellectual one. Still, I suppose that means I can watch it again!

Review of '4 Minutes'

A German film about a young lesbian woman in prison for a violent crime (which we learn later she didn't really commit) who was sexually abused by her father, who also wanted her to be a concert pianist. An old woman on the staff of the prison wants to coach her to take part in a piano competition; the prisoner reluctantly agrees, but has to practice in handcuffs because of an act of violence against one of the guards.

Relentlessly depressing, with a Nazi prison camp back-story for the old woman (also a lesbian, who sees her Jewish lover executed). I wonder what we'll do for gravitas when it's no longer plausible for contemporary film characters to have had direct experience of Nazi camps?

Not a bad film though, with good acting, enough tension and drama (because it's not Hollywood we don't know whether it will have a happy ending) and lots of dark cinematography.

Review of 'Spring, Summer. Autumn, Winter...and Spring Again'.

An odd Korean film, which felt like it was heavy with symbolism and allegory that passed me by. A monk lives in a temple which is on a beautiful island in a beautiful lake. The temple is a traditional wooden building, and for some reason it reminded me of the dacha at the end of the 'Solaris', which is also on an island, but in the boiling sea of the sentient planet.

The monk is bringing up a small boy who lives with him, also wearing monk's garb. The boy roams freely but then performs various cruelties on local wildlife - he ties a stone to a fish, a frog and a bird. The monk shows him how it feels by tying a very heavy stone to the boy, who then remorsefully sets out to free the animals but finds some of them have died. In the next season a woman brings a sick girl to recuperate on the island; the boy, now grown in to a young man, has sex with the girl in various nooks on the island. He and the girl sleep in a boat on the lake, and the monk removes the bung from the boat so that it fills with water.

The young man leaves but returns as a not-so-young man on the run from the police for killing his wife; the monk takes him and hides him from the police who come looking for him. The now old monk dies, the younger man takes his place, and in the final scene a young woman brings a baby for him to look after. There is a lot of footage of scenery with a Buddhist hymn (with lyrics that don't hold up well in translation) sung by a female choir in the background.

The film is very slow, beautiful to look at but not very engaging as cinema. Not sure that this was time well spent.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review of 'Expo 58'

I've really loved some of Jonathan Coe's books (The Rotters' Club, House of Sleep) and not liked some others (Dwarves of Death). This one sits somewhere in the middle, to my surprise. It takes a long time to get started, and I found the mundane details of the main character's life dull - well, they are supposed to be, but couldn't we have established that rather more quickly? It's more interesting when he gets to Belgium, and by the end I was emotionally engaged with him, his wife, his situation. 

By the end I was sorry it was over - the impact of finishing with a present-day epilogue in which many of the main characters are dead is poignant. On the other hand, I didn't like the MI5 characters' double act - it reminded me too much of Ealing comedies, and felt like it was played for laughs according to a formula.

I note that 1958 was the year of my own birth, so the main characters are contemporaries of my parents. I don't know whether Coe is over-doing it, but London in 1958 seems really depressing, as if the war and rationing have only just finished.

Review: Carnal Machines

A very mixed collection - well, that's how it is with anthologies, isn't it? At least one reviewer has speculated that all the stories are written by one (male) author. I don't think so - they're different enough, and variable enough in quality.

Some of them really worked for me, and others made me want to skip quickly on to the next. Quite a few stories in which men are raped by machines. I liked best those that took the steampunk technology for granted rather than made it the focus of the technology, and those that managed to do a workable pastiche of Victorian style.

A number of the stories feature female oriental villains which rather reminded me of Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu, even though the characters are mainly women. Is that OK in a retro context?

General thought is that I still haven't found much steampunk fiction where the writing lives up to the visual aesthetic - the cover is rather better than the stories!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: The Hundred Foot Journey

Limp, lame, implausible, though at least pleasant to look at. A family of Indians open a restaurant in a small French village which already has a Michelin-starred restaurant, owned and run by Helen Mirren. After a hesitation of perhaps 20 seconds by the locals the restaurant is soon filled with happy French customers who have all embraced Indian food; it takes another minute for Mirren's sour hater to reveal that she has a heart of gold and wants no underhand tricks against the Indians (her chef had just tried to burn them out, in the worst misunderstanding of managerial directions since Thomas A'Beckett).

The Indian's golden-boy son becomes a fabulous celebrated French cook but nevertheless leaves celebrity in Paris to work in Mirren's provincial restaurant. There's almost no racism, no commercial competition, no family rows that last longer than a nano-second, and absolutely no tension.  It did make me quite hungry watching it, though.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review of “Alice's Adventures in Steamland: The Clockwork Goddess”

A disappointment - some nice ideas, good descriptions of the steampunk technology, and some good jokes, but ultimately not very well written, with too much unjustified graphic violence and poorly described sex. I like sex, violence and violent sex as much as the next person, but this didn't work for me. Actually the Alice in Wonderland motifs made it worse - it felt like they'd been crowbarred in to keep a running joke going, and it would have been better without them. Somewhere in here there's a better book trying and failing to get out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review of 'The Radetzky March' by Joseph Roth

It took me a while to get into this book, but I ended up loving it and feeling sorry that it had ended. It's a detailed, evocative portrayal of the end of the Hapsburg empire, and captures well the feeling of inevitability and sentimentality that characterised that ending, at least for some members of the Austrian elite. It's all there - the clash of nationalisms, the ossification of the monarchy in the person of Franz Joseph, the rise of the workers' movement, the stultifying formality and prison of manners. It focuses on the relationship between three generations of men - their mothers and spouses are barely present - and how they are each diminished by their relations with each other. Both father and son are in the shadow of the grandfather, who had accidentally been a hero at the battle of Solferino; the father loves his son but correctness and a sense of what is honourable and dignified prevents either of them having a proper relationship with each other. The grandson has a military career which brings him no sense of self-worth but finds it impossible to leave the army.

At first I found the detail crushing and a bit dull, but it become a way of making the characters real, so that the final unfolding with the outbreak of war feels like a personal tragedy that involves people you know; otherwise, as the author himself hints, the death of one young man among so many can have no significance.

Really enjoyed this, and will read more by Roth

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Review of 'Spectre'

I went expecting to really hate this, and ended up quite liking it. The new James Bond is a lot more Guardian-reader friendly than the Ian Fleming version. If there was any doubt, the fact that the first image after the credits is of the front page of The Guardian should dispel these; I'm sure Fleming thought of all Guardian readers as either traitors or fellow-travelling useful idiots.

There's less camp humour, but also less sexism. Daniel Craig's Bond seems to form genuine emotional relationships with women rather than treat them as recreational toys. The pace is more controlled - it's not all crashes and bangs and stunts. As every, the sets, the locations and the clothes are nice to look at.

The plot doesn't make a great deal of sense (why is the secret surveillance centre located on top of a remote desert petrochemical plant?), but it's grounded in a different moral universe to the old style of Bond. Here the boundary between the security services and the baddies - Spectre - is thin and faint. In a nod to 9-11 conspiracy theories it's clear that the terrorist attacks which are being used to justify constant global surveillance are being orchestrated by the security services themselves. The nasty posh-boy new head of the merged MI5/MI6 looks a lot like George Osborne and is described as having 'gone to school with the Home Secretary'. Surveillance is something that the baddies do, as compared to traditional old-style secret agents. Spectre looks like a corporate entity and talks the language of business; it's also ethnically diverse, as is the security service.

Still loads of product placement, but I could imagine watching another one of these.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Review of 'Romantics Anonymous'

Daft French romcom about a very awkward shy woman (for some reason this is translated as 'emotional' in the subtitles - maybe that's the French for 'shy', or maybe the French have a different understanding of the nature of the phenomenon) who is an expert chocolatier but can't handle the people aspects of the job. She gets a job with a failing chocolate company, where the boss is also awkward and shy, and naturally falls for her, but because he's...well, you can see where this went.

It has its moments - mainly where it's being very specifically French, like the chocolate convention they both attend - but it's not really worth the time it takes to watch it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review of 'The Wonders'

A bleak and depressing film about artisanal agriculture and food production in Tuscany - an antidote to all those films in which that setting is necessarily idyllic. A family keep bees and produce honey at a near-derelict farm. Lots is not explained - there's a German father, his Italian wife who is constantly on the brink of leaving him, another German woman (who is she?), and four daughters who provide child labour for the honey business rather than going to school. There's also a young German delinquent boy, left by a social worker in what is supposed to be a reforming placement, though if she had had any eyes to see she wouldn't have left a dog with these people. Somehow the eldest daughter, the only one with any brains and talent, comes across a tacky agricultural-themed reality show in which contestants are required to dress up as ancient Etruscans and pitch their businesses to a studio audience. Neither it nor the business itself go well; the film is a bit of an illustration as to how some people just aren't very good at life.

Interesting ideas and characters, a dismal setting and bleak cinematography, but too long without enough happening - I had several micro-dozes during the film.

Review of 'Lucky Them'

This could so easily have been a conventional romcom, but it's not. It's a comedy of sorts, though there aren't that many laughs. It's got a strong female lead who's not soppy or ditzy, and it doesn't end up with true love taking its expected course - even though the plot-line is about a woman journalist trying to find her ex so that she can either write a feature about him, or re-kindle their past love, or both. Set in Seattle, with some journalist in-jokes and lots of really quite grimy interiors, so this is more like the real world where actual people live rather than the sanitized and glamourized version that Hollywood usually presents.

Not a major triumph, but worth watching.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review of 'Hunk Dory'

A sort of coming-of-age movie set in 1976 Wales, with a group of teens doing a version of 'The Tempest' with 1970s pop songs under the direction of their not-too-competent drama teacher, played by Minnie Driver. Some teenage angst - unrequited teen love, concealed gay sexuality, absent mum who's gone off and left the family - and some teacher angst too. The kids all have rather good voices, the school band sounds suspiciously good, and the staging final production (outdoors because the school has been the subject of an arson attack) is quite wonderful.

It's supposed to be set in the long hot summer of 1976, but it doesn't look nearly hot enough. The end credits say what happened to the characters next, which rather implies that this is a true story, but I can find nothing to substantiate that - so it feels like a rather cheap trick to give the film more weight than it really has.

An agreeable way to pass 90 minutes, but not brilliant.

Review of 'The Martian'

A nicely shot science fiction film, with the Jordanian desert looking much like I'd imagine Mars to look. But a bit plodding and over-long, and lacking some of the best bits of the book. The latter was really about the science and engineering - a Robinson Crusoe for the modern age, which went into lots of detail about how the hero uses his scientific knowledge to solve practical problems that might kill him. In the film we know that he is using some science, and lots of techie stuff, but we don't see him working hard at it - just doing physical stuff. We know he's brave, but we don't see that he is also clever and knowledgeable. That's a shame, because one of the merits of the book is that it makes clever, science-knowing people cool. In the film, it's just the usual physical skill and bravery that's cool.

The film also depicts the workings of the NASA bureaucracy, and management and PR structures - which the task of rescuing the man stuck on Mars ultimately subverts. In films we are used to seeing people bravely cut through red tape to get things done, so the feeling that something special is happening is not nearly as strong. Strange though it may sound, the book has more emotional and character depth than the film - and the book was not strong on that sort of thing.

Apart from the relentless cheer leading for NASA and space programmes generally I counted two bits of product placement - the use of Cisco video-conferencing equipment, with the Cisco logo prominent in the top right corner of the screen, and - more subtly - the fact that the door monitoring systems in the HAB and the spacecraft have exactly the same UI as the Google NEST home thermostat.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Review of 'Marshlands'

Set in Spain the early 1980s, just as the country emerges from fascism and into an uneasy democracy, this is a conventional police procedural that turns into a murder investigation. It's got lots of the usual tropes - the two cops are an ill-matched pair - one has a reputation as a trouble-making leftist, the other as a fascist thug and torturer, the local politicians want the case cleared up quickly, the case is in a remote town where the central authority's writ does not really run...

The disappearance and murders turn out to be linked to the local power elite, there's a background of strikes and class struggle, local heroin dealers...lots of very conventional plot devices (notes under the door, half-developed photographs on unusual film stock, a local investigative journalist) but some striking photography,  especially the amazing high aerial shots - which seem to me to emphasize the futility and insignificance of the events that we are witnessing.

Despite the straight narrative and characterisation this is a really good, gripping film.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Review of 'Post Capitalism' by Paul Mason

This is simultaneously an important book and a somewhat disappointing one. Here, as with his other book ‘Why it’s still kicking off everywhere’, he’s taken a really important topic and written about it with great clarity and a style that makes quite difficult stuff rather accessible. The disappointment (which also applied to the other book) is that the analysis is great but the prescription falls rather flat.

Here he’s writing about the way in which the present model of capitalism, and by extension the capitalist system itself, has reached a critical point. The old model is coming off the rails, sinking under the weight of the massive debts that it has created as a result of financialization and downright fraud, and finding that its very success in transferring wealth upwards leaves it short of the demand that it needs to keep the wheels turning. It’s not suited to a world in which the marginal cost of the stuff that people want to buy is approaching zero. It is in any case ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of climate change, an ageing population and instability-induced mass migrations.

What’s really great about this book is the way it synthesises some of the best writing about the transformative potential of the internet and the web with a non-dogmatic perspective from the Marxist tradition. So on the one had we get Yochai Benkler, who I think is rather brilliant but have never seen anyone on the left even notice, and on the other hand we get Kondratieff, and also Preobrazhensky and Hildferding on the transition from capitalism to socialism. There’s an account of the difficulties that the Soviets had in running a planned economy, and no concessions to the notion that the USSR was in any sense ‘actually existing socialism’ or even ‘a degenerated workers’ state’. And some interesting observations about mainstream economic and management theory that I didn't know about.  

There’s a critical account of how the Marxist tradition has been wrong about the politics of skilled workers, and of the working class as a whole – how it has historically sought to build institutions and mechanisms of solidarity within capitalism, rather than simply set its face against it because it had nothing to lose but its chains. There’s a great discussion of the role of skill in the labour process under capitalism, and the extent to which capitalism in its Taylorist and Fordist modes needed to expunge skill from work.

There are sections that made me smile, and others that made me want to punch the air in gratitude that someone else had ‘got it’ and expressed it better than I could.

I learned lots – not least about Bogdanov, a sometime ex-Bolshevik and early Soviet sci-fi writer with a powerful view of a post-capitalist society (among lots of other things). But I was also struck by some omissions. There’s no mention of Harry Braverman, whose ‘Labour and Monopoly Capital’ is all about Taylorism and capitalism’s relationship to skill; or to Mike Cooley, whose ‘Architect or Bee’ addressed the same issues – rather prophetically, I’d say – in relation to the automatization of white collar work. Stafford Beer, who tried to deploy early computers in support of Allende’s socialist planning, doesn’t get a mention.

And since he makes much of the idea that the left can and should learn from the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it’s a surprise to find no mention of E P Thompson, who explored the same idea at length in ‘The Poverty of Theory’. And I’d like to have seen at least a nod to Karl Polanyi, who wrote about the cruelty explicit in the emergence of the market economy, and about the first wave of globalisation and its collapse, in ‘The Great Transformation’. Polanyi’s important, too, in that he writes about how the rise of capitalism created capitalist people, and how by implication another society would bring about different people – it’s a rather strong rebuttal of the ‘human nature’ argument for capitalism and greed.

It’s a book, not a three-year university course, so all of these omissions can be forgiven. So, ultimately, can the fact that ‘what is to be done’ section is a bit thin and a bit lame. Some of it reads like a lefty version of the ‘Californian ideology’ – technology is great and it will enable super new stuff that makes things better. I don’t think he gives sufficient weight to the way in which new communications technologies do allow the marketization of things that have hitherto not been susceptible – I’m thinking of ‘task-sharing’ websites like TaskRabbit, which are the 21st century equivalent of the hiring fair for domestic servants. Trebor Scholz has written some good stuff about ‘platform capitalism’, and it also doesn’t get a mention here.

I’m aware too, that the internet has rubbed away some of the scraps of autonomy and economic independence that were – precariously – available to some self-employed ‘creative’ artisans. CD sales at the end of a gig helped some independent musicians to make a living, but no-one buys them anymore except as a way of making a donation. Writers might expect to get paid for freelance contributions; now they are offered ‘guest blogs’ to which they are expected to contribute for free.

But I don’t want this to come over as a sustained whine. I really liked this book, and my disappointment with the end is in proportion to my exultation at the strength of the analysis. I hope that Paul Mason find a way to build on it, and to provide concrete examples of successful prefigurative projects. I don’t have any problem with the idea of building a new world within the shell of the old one; there are many variants of this strategy, and they’re not all utopian or apolitical or reformist. We just need to find the right ways to do it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review of 'The Global Minotaur' by Yanis Varoufakis

An overview of global finance and economics, from the perspective of someone who is clearly a radical dissenter but not a complete outsider. In person and when speaking Varoufakis is more radical than this book, which ends up calling for a revived, fairer Bretton Woods with America at the centre - not what I expected from a Marxist. Still, there's lots of very clear explication of how the system works, and the roles of the various countries within it. I suspect it will stand a re-reading...I get CDOs, but can't follow CDSs no matter how often I read about them.

I kept wanting to take bits of this and shove it under the noses of those of a self-deceiving mainstream-economics persuasion, but it's not appropriate for that. I'd really like for there to be a shorter, simpler version aimed at that.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review of 'Jurassic York'

This book is a hysterical mash-up of Shakespeare, Star Wars, 1984 and Brave New World, the Carry On films, dystopian cyberpunk…well, it’s just wonderful. There’s a tongue-in-cheek Hibernophobia about it, but I don’t think any Scots people could really take offence. The plot is at least partly borrowed from Star Wars, but set in a fictional future England (Scotland having become independent long ago) ruled by a cloned and re-vivified Richard III, who is just as nasty as Shakespeare makes his first incarnation.

Lots of quoting from Shakespeare and contemporary pop songs, tons of humour, characters with names from contemporary British politics, a feminist slant (the warriors are mainly girls because lots of men died in a plague a while back)…what’s not to like?

A slightly serious point; the Wars of the Roses were the classic period of so-called “Bastard Feudalism”, when traditional loyalties and obligations broke down and political relationships were fluid and fast-changing. I think it might have been better to depict a contemporary version of “Bastard Feudalism” (after all, our contemporary Tories fit the bill on most counts) rather than try to squeeze the plot of this on to a precise mapping of the Yorkist-Lancastrian divide. I think the authors could have more fun with Johnson and Cameron, or their latter-day avatars, than they do with revivified defunct noblemen.

But that’s a quibble. This is enormous fun, and much to be enjoyed.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Review of 45 Years

I saw this a few weeks ago and still haven’t written a review – very unusual for me. I think it’s because this film affected me so much. It’s about a couple who have been married for a long time, and as they prepare to celebrate their 45th anniversary comes the news that the body of his old girlfriend, frozen in an underground glacier since she died on a walking holiday before he ever met his wife, has been found.

This unsurprisingly generates much reflection on the road not taken – what sort of life he might have had if she hadn't died. He’s sensitive enough to not do much of this in front of his wife of 45 years, but she can see that he’s doing it, and it’s painful for her, and thus for him.

My first response was that this was an example of the inherent sadness of human existence. Nobody behaves badly, and yet they both are badly hurt. Life is a collection of roads not taken, and roads taken. We make the best choices we can with the knowledge we have and the hands we are dealt, and we have to live with the consequences even – especially – when hindsight shows the choices not to have been the best they could have been. That’s why seeing any story that takes in the whole arc of a life – Pinter’s ‘Betrayals’ comes to mind, but also the brilliant puppet show about gay men 'Or You Could Kiss me' – is so moving and also so disquieting.

But I think that there’s more to this particular story. After I thought about I decided that actually the husband had done something wrong, and that this was actually the most painful thing about the story; more, that my initial failure to allow this, and read this as a story about everybody doing the best they can, actually says something about me and how I've lived my life. (I won’t say more about what it was, because it would spoil a really good film, with great acting, for anyone who hasn't seen it. If you want to know, talk to me when you've seen it; or talk to your therapist, or your partner of many years.)

Which is probably why it’s taken me so long to write the review.

Review of ‘The Second Mother’

A Brazilian film about the relationship between families and their household servants. I’ve little experience of this myself, but my wife and her family (South African) know all about kids being brought up by servants. There are loving relationships between the servants and their charges, but everyone knows – or grows to know – the precise boundaries that delineate the extent to which the servants are, and are not, family members.

And that’s what the film is about. Val, a poor woman from the North East of Brazil, brings up the nice young son in a beautiful modernist house in Sao Paolo, with pool, lovely garden, cute Labrador and all the other trimmings. She is trusted, loyal, loves the son and is loved by him in a way that he doesn’t love his real mother – the Portuguese title is ‘When is she coming home?’, a question that the boy asks about his mummy early on, when he’s about six and being cared for by Val.

But the stable equilibrium is disrupted by the introduction of Val’s daughter Jessica, who comes to Sao Paolo to take the entrance exam for university. The family – Dona Barbara really, who runs the show – gives permission for Jessica to stay in the house, in Val’s servant room. But Jessica doesn’t understand the rules of the master-servant game and all the little ways in which Val diminishes herself to maintain those boundaries. Oh, and she’s beautiful and clever.

This film is actually painful to watch, though it does have some comic moments. Dona Barbara reacts very badly to the disruption – when Jessica swims in the family pool she orders it to be drained, claiming to have seen a rat in there. Her husband, a failed artist, makes a fool of himself because Jessica is beautiful and young.

This is a bit slow in the beginning, and a bit long, but really worth staying with. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Review of 'Paper Towns'

Like the high school noire film 'Brick', but without the plot complexity, the clever cinematography, the drugs, the intrigue...in fact, just a regular US high school rom-com, with a bit of mystery because the most popular girl in the school disappears, but not all that much mystery really because she's always been a bit wild and dark. Mainly a buddy movie about the two male friends who help our hero to look for her, and the relationship between the three boys. Watchable, but not immensely so.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review of 'The Wolfpack'

Possibly the weirdest film I have ever seen, and I have seen some weird ones. This is shot and edited with all the visual sense of a family home movie. That's not surprising, since a lot of it appears to be found footage from the family's home movies. Watching it made Ruth feel physically sick as a result of all the handheld camera work and hosepipe pans. Youtube does a better job of stabilising video footage than has been done here.

That's part of the point, of course. This is supposed to look un-mediated, to enhance its authenticity. It is a documentary about a family of six children (now young adults) and their parents who grow up in a tiny apartment in New York city, with the children never ever leaving the apartment. They have grown up with almost no contact with the outside world - they are home educated, so they've not been to school or met other children...or anyone. Their knowledge of the outside world comes mainly from their DVD collection, which contains a lot of classics and quite a lot of horror or near-horror (like Reservoir Dogs). Their father, a South American man, has kept the family shut up in this way to protect them from the corrosive effects of contemporary culture, drugs, violence etc.

So they've grown up with Tarantino as their window on the world. The mother and father met when she was a hippy tourists, and they'd planned to move to Scandinavia where they thought the values were sound, but somehow they'd not made it and ended up stranded in the Lower East Side, high up in a housing project. No TV, no internet, just the DVDs. The children (five boys, one girl, all with Hindu names and long hair down to the base of their spines) amuse themselves by re-making the films with a home video camera and cardboard props; much of the film contains footage of their re-enactments. They seem to have a huge amount of equipment to help them do this. Later the film shows them emerging from the apartment and going outside for short trips - to the beach, to a forest, to the shops - all of which is a powerful experience for them.

All of them seem quite damaged by the experience, but they are not totally alien to me. I can't help thinking that some of the people I've known over the years who have sought to protect their children from the malign influences of the world have been a bit like this; I recognise some of the feeling in myself. The fact that they'd wanted to move to Scandinavia and thought well of its values somehow marks them out as not entirely insane.

Somehow the young adults came into contact with the woman who made this film, and she is almost present in it. It looks like a student project, and yet it must have had some money and some backing, if only for the post-production and the distribution. I would love to have been at the meeting where this was pitched.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A few notes on Zionism and the Jewishness of Israel

Two separate questions really. The historic status of Zionism, and whether Israel should be ‘the state of the Jewish people’.

On the first one, the story is complicated. Zionism has/had some of the features of a classic (Eastern) European nationalist movement, but it also differed from it in some important ways. I can’t think of another nationalist movement that wasn’t about a people living in its territory, and wanting that people to have self-government on that territory. That in itself makes Zionism problematic. Progressives generally support ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ in the sense that they allow territories to secede. Support for Zionism entails rather more than this basic principle.

The Zionists were also unusually uninterested in the national culture of the people that they represented; they mainly wanted to replace it with another culture which they intended to create. Of course, other kinds of nationalism to some extent ‘invented’ the nation which it championed, but I think Zionism rather took this to an extreme.

Historically, Zionism was a minority movement within the various Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, and even more so in the West. That doesn’t prove that its claim to represent that national movement of the Jews is necessarily wrong, but it is surely relevant. Zionism wasn’t even the only form of Jewish nationalism – there were others, including Territorialism and Sejmism, and the ‘distributed nationalism’ of the various Yiddishist nationalists. Without the sponsorship of the British Empire, and without the holocaust, it would have been an interesting, quirky footnote in Jewish history, like the Garveyites for Black America. There would have been some communities of ‘practical Zionists’ in Palestine, a bit like the Templar communities founded by German Protestants, and they might have survived depending on how an independent Palestine turned out.

And of course, up until the present time most Jews have not been nationalists, and many have argued that the Jews don’t have any national identity apart from citizenship of the countries in which they live. This view was particularly prevalent in Western Europe, where the idea of belong to an ethnos independent of citizenship was not well understood or widely believed in. Believing that ‘national self-determination’ didn’t apply to Jews didn’t make these people anti-semites. That Zionism has been successful in establishing a state doesn’t make them retrospective anti-semites, and therefore it surely doesn’t make anyone who holds this belief now an anti-semite either. It’s just a different view about the applicability of nationalism to the various Jewish communities around the world.

Has Zionism turned out to be a ‘good thing’, in some fair historical balance sheet? It’s possible that Zionism will turn out to have been a good thing for all Jews, or for some Jews. It’s plausible that it won’t, and taking that view doesn’t make someone an anti-semite either.

OK, now the other question. In what sense should Israel be a ‘Jewish State’? Most liberal democracies don’t privilege one ethnic group among their citizens. It’s unusual for the state to record or document individual citizen’s ethnicities. There are some exceptions, usually based on the idea of compensating for or redressing the effect of past discrimination – Australia does something like that as regards Aboriginal people, for example. But in France, and in Italy, the state at least regards everyone with citizenship as French or Italian. Why should Israel be different? Why can’t it accept an ‘Israeli’ national identity and status, irrespective of religion or ethnicity?

This is not an abstract question of tidiness. Ultimately the fate of the Israeli Jews will depend on their ability to make peace with the neighbours. That’s a very tall order, and the Israeli Jews would be foolish to disarm in the hope of this happening. They live in a very rough neighbourhood. It is managing to have plenty of nasty wars without them. The neighbours never wanted them to come, and don’t think they should be there – in the strong sense of ‘should’. Nevertheless, there is no long term future for Israeli Jews, and certainly no democratic future, without it.

I know that there are some Arab nationalists, and some others who are probably not nationalists, who would like all the trappings of Zionism stripped from the state, so that there would be no peculiar ethnic identity in its symbolic representation – changing the words of the Hatikvah, changing the flag, and so on. I can see the tidiness logic of this, but I don’t think it’s very important.

 I do think that legal and institutional discrimination, and segregation and economic disadvantage, for non-Jews in Israel should end. The historic relationship of Israel to the wider Jewish world, and the role of the Zionism movement in bring the state into being, is not sufficient justification for this to continue. Israel will remain a demographically and culturally Jewish country without them, and that’s Jewish enough for me.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review of 'Mistress America'

A good, funny, quirky comedy that's perhaps a bit shallow, but in a good way. Tracey is having a hard time in her first semester (that's 'term', right?) at university in New York, where she feels patronised as a suburbanite in the big city. She can't make friends, she finds the work hard, she's shut out by the cool literary in-crowd.

Then she meets Brooke, who is the daughter of the widowed man her divorced mother is about to marry. Brooke is cool, interesting, and instantly engaged, engaging and sympathetic. Tracey is fascinated, and wants to join in all of Brooke's projects, but at the same time sees her with a more objective and adult eye than her behaviour suggests. She puts a lightly fictionalized Brooke into a short story she writes...well, I don't have to provide a complete synopsis.

But it's a really enjoyable film, with lots of acute observations, great dialogue, and some very funny situations, without a fart or barf joke in sight.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Review of 'Diary of a teenage girl'

This is a very powerful, and for me, rather disturbing film. It was made more disturbing by watching in the presence of two just-post-teenage girls, who were the daughters of friends from Australia that we thought we'd entertain by taking them to a film; the online reviews all suggested that this would be a comedy. Well, there are a few funny moments, but it's mainly painful to watch a young girl growing up among abusive and dysfunctional adults, having under-sex with her pot-head mother's pot-head boyfriend, giving blow-jobs to strangers she meets in bars because she thinks hookers are cool, and so on.

This is not your conventional coming of age film, and there are few tender and sensitive moments. It's raw and not pleasant - though, perhaps because it's contemporary Hollywood it has an implausible upbeat ending.

Review of ‘What we did on our holiday’

A comedy about dysfunctional families, break-up, ageing, disappointment and death. The poster, which makes it look like a British version of all the 'Vacation in Hell' comedies, is quite misleading. This is quite good actually, with David Tennant playing the dad and Rosamund Pike (rather against type) being a somewhat implausible thirty-something mum with three kids. The Tennant character’s own father is dying at his mansion in the Highlands so the family pretends to be together for one last visit. The three kids are great in an ‘Outnumbered’ sort of way, Tennant plays his usual desperate disorganised role, and Billy Connolly plays himself as the slightly curmudgeonly dad (former famous footballer, heart of gold). Celia Imrie as the social worker is also great.

Small note – can’t get over how weird Rosamund Pike looks when she’s not being glamorous. Not quite as alien-looking as Tilda Swinton, but definitely heading in that direction.

Review of ‘I could never be your woman’

Lame-ish romcom set in Hollywood around a 40-ish TV producer who falls for a younger man. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the producer, and lots of British comedy actors appear – maybe they were a job lot. Touches on some important issues, about the way it’s easy to fake photos, and about relationships between people of different ages, and the denial of ageing – but in a fairly useless and insincere way. Everyone else is fake because they are having work done, but Michele Feiffer is just physically perfect and not heir to any kind of mortality. Lots of philosophical crap about male-female attraction voiced by Tracey Ullman playing the part of Mother Nature. 

You can tell how bad this is by the fact that they clips which play over the credits are not ‘out-takes’ but what the film-makers must have decided are just the best funny bits from the film, repeated. Mainly they weren't that funny the first time and don’t bear repeating.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review of 'Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief'

A documentary about Scientology, based on a book, that reveals a lot about the inner workings of the 'church' but leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The main one is 'how come Scientology got to be so powerful when it's obviously ridiculous and run by repellent people?' L Ron Hubbard, the founder, was fat and ugly with bad teeth. So how come? Perhaps part of the answer is that there's nothing so stupid that it won't attract some people, and that the need to belong is so strong that once in some people will find any number of reasons not to leave, however nasty. Look at the WRP, for example. I do rather wonder if there was a relationship between the 'church' and some US government agencies; it does seem to have had rather an easy ride from the authorities. Trouble is that lots of the commentary on Scientology is almost as nutty as they are, so of course there are suggestions that it was a front for the CIA, and the Illuminati, and so on.

The film is a bit on the long side, with lots of testimony from ex-members about the nasty stuff they did, and how it ended up being done to them. I was really struck by the inter-cutting between clips of these people denying that they did some nasty stuff, and other later clips admitting that they had done the same nasty stuff; because what it shows is that demeanour is no guide to truthfulness. We tend to believe that we can tell when people are lying by looking at them. The movies and TV have taught us to believe that people look shifty when they are lying, and that we won't be taken in. Actually, they don't. Maybe decent people squirm a bit when they lie, but bad people, and people who think that it's OK to lie for a purpose, seem not to. Yet our system of justice is in part premised on the idea that ordinary people will be able to tell who is telling the truth.

Review of 'Love and Mercy'

A bio-pic of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who turns out to have been much more troubled than I  could have imagined from the music. A good film, with some good acting, and an interesting split-narrative structure (part during the 1960-70s heyday, part in the early 1990s).

Interesting counterpart with the story of Amy Winehouse. AW was left to the care of people who cared more about themselves, and how they could advance themselves through her career, than they ever did about her physical or mental health. It seems that a bit of dedicated competent professional help might have saved, and allowed her to graduate from youthful excess to grand old lady of Jazz.

Whereas Wilson had professional help in the shape of rogue shrink Dr Eugene Landy, who kept him sick and exploited him ruthlessly. If we are to believe the film then Wilson hit lucky in that he was rescued by car salesperson Melinda Leadbetter, who saw that something was wrong in the doctor-patient relationship. But it does highlight the problem for people who are talented, but not either commercially savvy or strong enough to cope with the pressures of a life in the limelight. How do you know who trust as doctor, counsellor, agent, lawyer, even accountant?

There is, of course, no mention in the film of the Beach Boys's politics, including their performance at a Republican fundraiser in 1984 (from which Brian was ejected). For that you'll have to read this.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Review of 'Amy'

Watched this last night, at the cinema, as part of a ‘première’ with live Q&A with director and producer. Glad I did, because some films need to be seen in a darkened room with a crowd and no other distractions.

This is a beautifully made documentary, without talking head interviews but with lots of found footage with audio interviews running over. It left me profoundly sad, of course, but also angry. I wasn't a huge AW fan, and didn't consume much of the celeb coverage while she was alive. But anyone can see what a huge talent she was, both as a singer and as a writer. So it’s hard to watch her entourage failing her. Other celebs have been protected from the worst impacts of media attention, but she wasn't. She was left to be exposed to it, because the sight of her cracking under the pressure somehow enhanced her market value. Others have survived drugs and bad relationships, but she wasn't given the time or space to regroup and recover, again because those around her wanted to keep her touring and performing. She was too young, inexperienced, and already damaged by early life to take control herself.

I note in passing that it was alcohol and bulimia that killed her rather than the shedloads of drugs that she took, but this is not to defend the drugs and the drug-taking; it all contributed to the dissolution of her personality. I also think that no-one watching this will learn anything. Young people won’t do any less booze and drugs, young women will still want to be thin, the business will still batten on to anyone with talent, and destroy them if they let it.

So sad to think that she wrote all those beautiful songs about someone as obviously shitty as her ex-husband.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Review of "London Road"

A musical about a serial killer. Well, actually a setting to opera-style music of the verbatim transcripts gathered by researchers who spent time with the residents of London Road, Ipswich, where a man murdered five prostitute women during three months. You won't come out humming the tunes, though some of the images last for a long time - particularly the shots of surviving prostitutes, who have more dignity than the other characters.

This is a brilliant, clever, moving film - though it rather does confirm my prejudice that one should never let the media in any form near one's personal life. The residents do not come out of it very well, and there's more than a touch of sneering at the chavs. But no-one comes out of it very well - not the local politician, and not the voyeuristic media either.

Review of 'Sparkle'

Slightly dull and plodding romcom, without much rom or com. Young man channelling his inner 'Alfie' comes to London, uses his charm and sexual magnetism to get a job in PR by screwing the boss...unknowingly meets her daughter and becomes involved with her too...his mum is a sort of singer (really a karaoke singer, as far as I can see) but she follows him to London to have a 'career' but ends up romantically involved with failure Bob Hoskins, whose more successful brother is the PR-boss's long term lover and the father of the daughter (unbeknown to her, of course). Implausible, not interesting enough, and much too long, presumably because the quality didn't justify spending any more money on editing.

I watched this on iPlayer, and couldn't help wondering whether the person who wrote the description had seen it - it was utterly wrong.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review of "The Fourth Estate"

Watched this in a free screening at the achingly cool venue Passing Clouds, in super-hip Dalston. A zero budget film made over three years by two people with a cheap camera and a ten-year old laptop, it's better than most films about what's wrong with the British media. Lots of talking heads, but really good ones, with smart perspectives, incisive analysis and an ability to talk to the point. Touches on a lot of subjects, including media ownership and regulation, the economics of the media, representations of race, gender and class.

In some ways too long to be really punchy (it's only 80 minutes, but it tries to cover a lot in that time) but too short to do justice to all the things it raises. I would have liked more on the first bit - ownership and regulation - and possibly more on Leveson, which is where it starts. (I was most affected, though, by the short segment in which a young black woman responds to that Lilly Allen video, which I hadn't previously seen - I'd rather ignored the furore over it as being the usual music industry PR shit). Interestingly the two film-makers didn't know that they were going to make a documentary when they started - they thought it might become lots of shorts on YouTube. I hope they do that too, because they've got lots more to say.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review of 'French Film'

Watched on iPlayer via Chromecast, and watched for the second time. Not entirely through choice, because it isn't really worth watching twice, but Ruth couldn't remember seeing it so...

Nominally a rom-com, and about relationships with some funny bits, there's nevertheless a lot of sadness and misery in this film. Hugh Bonneville establishes himself as the "poor man/woman's Colin Firth" by playing an ineffectual, uncomfortable posh bloke who is a journalist in an unsatisfactory relationship with his girlfriend Cheryl (Victoria Hamilton).

There's a good deal of un-reflective stereotyping of French people and French-ness - the couples counsellor that they go to is a self-important over-intellectual French guy, for example. Eric Cantona plays a gnomic French film director. Although HB is the sympathetic focus of the story, and a self-proclaimed anti-French xenophobe, the French people in the film all turn out to have been right all along - the couple should split up, how relationships begin determines how they'll end, love is something that you just know when it happens...

Monday, June 15, 2015

Review of 'Queen and Country'

A largely pointless, shapeless film. I went to see this because I understood it was a follow-on from 'Hope and Glory', also semi-autobiographical by John Boorman. But that's a much better film, with the alien-ness of childhood in wartime to provide it with a dramatic focus.This just went on through a series of episodes about army life, mainly without purpose or narrative direction. It felt like watching an over-long pilot for a TV series.Pretty enough to look at, and occasionally amusing, but that's all. Lots of talent, mainly wasted.

I note in passing that the poster displays a moment in the film that is entirely unmemorable - the main character is shown here hugging his sister, who has returned from Canada. Would you know that from the picture? I don't think you would.

Review of 'A Good Woman'

This is a film version of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan", transposed to a 1930s Amalfi ex-pat scene of wealthy Americans and Brits. It's mainly Wilde's dialogue, it has great scenery and settings, decent actors, and is faithful to Wilde's plot - so why does it drag, and why did I doze off? I think because it's too slow for the plot and the dialogue. The director lingers too long on the beautiful cast in the beautiful outfits, draped over the beautiful settings. Not really bad, but not as good as it ought to have been with the assets.

One odd thing - it's set in Fascist Italy, but there are no fascists at all, and almost no Italians. Why put it there at all? And could it have been set in 1930s Germany without any Nazis? One does wonder what goes on in the mind of Hollywood people. Also, the producer is Alan Greenspan, but it's not that Alan Greenspan.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Review of 'Grasp the Nettle'

I watched this last night at the Earl Haig Hall in Crouch End, projected from a laptop (as is typical of such showings, there was a low battery warning on the screen at around three quarters of the way through).

This is a zero-budget, over-long, slightly shapeless, but honest and evocative film about two overlapping communities of activists; an eco-village of benders on a site awaiting development near Kew Bridge, and the 'Democracy Village' in Parliament Square. Both communities no longer exist, having been evicted by bailiffs and police. Both were affected by an influx of the casualties of life - junkies, alcoholics, and nutters, with whom they found it increasingly difficult to deal. The early phase nutters included David Shayler, the ex-MI5 agent who in the film dressed as a woman, said that he was Jesus and rambled on about the Zionist World Government. Later he came to seem quite reasonable as the next wave arrived, including 'Freemen' who denounced Shayler and others as police agents.

After the Freemen came the drunks, the junkies and the mentally ill. Several of the activists complained that they were 'not social workers', and at least one hoped to camera that they would lose their forthcoming court case so that they wouldn't have to deal with the problem people any more.

It would be hard to say that either community achieved anything at all. Some of the people who were watching at the same time were inspired by the dedication and selflessness of the activists, and the way in which they did look after the victims who they found themselves looking after. I was just depressed by all the wasted energy, and the way that the communities got progressively smaller rather than bigger as the nutters made life unbearable for others.

I do remember that student occupations in the 1970s used to have a no-drugs, no alcohol rule. That seems like basic common sense now. I can see that eco-anarchists don't like the idea of having rules (after all, who can enforce them?) but I'd say that the need for that nettle to be grasped is one of the key learnings from the film.