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.