Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of 'The African Doctor' (Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont)'

French film about a Zairean doctor who qualifies in Lille, doesn't want to go home to become a personal physician to Mobutu and so takes a job in a grotty town north of Paris. He brings his family out, and his sophisticated and well-dressed wife is disappointed that it's not Paris - she misunderstood his phone call explaining about the new job.

And then it's about the racist reception they get from the town, and how the family eventually wins the populace over - he saves a baby, his daughter turns out to be a brilliant footballer who saves the fortunes of the local team, and so on. And he has to win his wife over to persuade her that they should stay, because she still wants them to move away to somewhere else - maybe the Zairean community in Brussels, where she has family and friends.

It's mostly enjoyable, and was a good family feelgood film for Xmas day, but it was sometimes uncomfortable to watch, because though it's supposed to be an anti-racist film it occasionally resorts to glib stereotypes to illustrate the 'clash of cultures' between the Zaireans and the French.

The epilogue explains that it's a real story, told by the doctor's son who is a Brussels-based rapper.

Watched on our TV via formal Netflix subscription.

Review of 'Rogue One'

Well, it wasn't so bad - almost a decent film, with a plot and acting and so on. There were some cute references to others in the series (remember, this is a pre-prequel, in terms of the narrative) but they were funny and well done. The story explains a plot hole in 'later' films (how come the Death Star is so easy to destroy?), though it has a few of its own.

I note that the earlier scenes of the resistance on...I forget, there were so many planet names in the first ten minutes...looked a lot like insurgents in Iraq, or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan - so much so that it reminded me of the Russian film 9th Company, which is of course a much better film.

Later the Rebel Alliance looks much more like a conventional army, albeit one with a rather loose and unusual command structure. In fact it looks a lot like the American army, and the fact that it seems to win its ground combat through massive air support must surely be significant - not something that 'rebels' usually can muster. We never see the fighting from the perspective of anyone on the receiving end of this, just the successes of the X-Wing fighters in smashing up Empire armoured forces and ground troops.

Watched at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Review of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

Enjoyed this much more than I expected to. There's only one joke, really - the juxtaposition of the genteel and emotionally restrained world of Jane Austen with a zombie slasher movie - but it's well done, for the most part. The acting was good-ish - nice to see Lena Headey in another role, and Matt Smith too - the settings atmospheric, and the implementations of the joke were well done. I particularly enjoyed those parts with authentic Austen dialogue superimposed on a fight scene (between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, showing off their martial arts skills, for example), and Austenian bitchiness about the Bennett girls having learned their fighting skills in less fashionable China rather than the more desirable Japan. The plot is a bit shaky here and there, and I couldn't always follow the geography of the region surrounding London which is protected from the Zombies by wall and canal, but who cares really?

Watched on TV via Chromecast, from a formal Netflix account.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review of 'Hail, Caesar'.

Really disappointed by this - I like the Coen brothers' films usually, and the story line sounded like it would be fun. The trailer looked like it would have lots of good jokes...but actually I was bored. There was really only one joke, and lots of indulgent spoofs of Hollywood cheese that nobody cares about any more. Films about film-making are sometimes good - The Player, Groundhog Day, and so on - but this was a bit boring. It's nice to see the 1940s (or is it the 1950s? It wasn't really obvious) lovingly recreated, but actually Woody Allen's Cafe Society did a better job of that, and I cared more about the characters and the plot. The Eddie Mannix character is much too rich and powerful given the role of the real-life person on which he's based - at least the agent in Cafe Society is plausibly powerful.

Watched on the TV via HDMI cable to PC, having previously obtained the film via informal distribution.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Review of 'Four Futures' by Peter Frase

A really good piece of future thinking from a left perspective - something that doesn't seem to happen all that often. And a really good resource with lots of references to other material and further reading. I particularly like the way he's prepared to use science fiction references as a way of thinking about the present and the future.

I'm a little bit surprised that the chapter on 'Rentism' didn't include a reference to Guy Standing's new book "The Corruption of Capitalism: Why rentiers thrive and work does not pay", but maybe the timing didn't work.

It also made me think of William Gibson's quite new book 'The Peripheral', in which the near-future world describes something like rentism, in which the surplus population mainly engage in crime or law enforcement, or in producing off-patent ('funny') versions of legitimate goods in 3D print shops - and the distant-future world is a version of 'communism for the rich' with the poor mainly wiped out in the apocalyptic 'jackpot', and those who remain competing for status through recherche art forms.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review of 'Moonrise Kingdom'

A really nice, gentle film (albeit with some violence and the odd animal death) about young twelve-year old misfits and the relationship that develops between them. An orphan boy scout resigns from his troop and goes AWOL from an island scout camp to rendezvous with the troubled girl that he met, briefly, at a performance of Benjamin Britten's "Noyle's Floode' in the local church. In fact, there's lots of Britten all the way through, including 'The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra' on a tiny battery-powered record player - how we used to listen to music while out and about in the old days. It seems rather fitting - the upstate New York setting seems to fit with the sort of environment I imagine Britten living in on the English East Coast.

Lots of nice touches, and great to see Bruce Willis in a decent film for once. Nice cinematography and washed-out colours. Particularly liked the way that it's a sort of 'Lord of the Flies' in reverse, in that the young boy's scout troop initially persecute him for being weird and an outsider, but end up rallying round and rescuing him from the malign outside bureaucracy ("Social Services", played by Tilda Swinton) who wants to put him in a juvenile facility.

Watched on TV via HDMI from a PC, earlier obtained by informal distribution network.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Review of 'Departures'

Nearly didn't go out to watch this one - cold, late, and so on. Very glad I did - very moving, but odd and thought-provoking all at the same time.

A Japanese cellist hears that his orchestra has folded, and moves back to his old home town with his young wife. He scans the papers for jobs, goes to what he thinks is a travel company (it's called 'Departures') and ends up taking a job as a...well, not exactly an undertaker, someone who prepares bodies for funerals. In the Jewish community this is a job done by a voluntary group, in Japan it seems like it's a profession - and one with pariah status, because though the activity is appreciated, the role seems to be despised. His old acquaintances tell him the job demeans him and he should get a proper job. His wife is horrified when she finds out - somehow he's managed not to tell her - and leaves him.

It's an amazing film, about death and loss and mourning. It reminded me all over again how aesthetic everything in Japan seems to be - the rituals associated with preparing the body, which are done with the family present, and very beautiful and dignified. It also made me think about how different are the ways of death across cultures - surely an argument against the idea that there is an unchanging human nature, since the fact of death is common to all cultures, but the way of dealing with it is so different. The Japanese seem to really wallow in the sorrow.

Watched on a cinema screen at Lansdown Film Club.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Review of 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'

I can't understand who this film is aimed at. It's too silly to appeal to grown-ups, what with all the magic and the J K Rowling words (but why do Muggles have to become No-Majs), but not really suitable for kids either, because there's a bit too much mild romance. I can only assume that the kids who grew up with Harry Potter, and are now in their early 20s, are the target audience, and it's assumed that they are sufficiently brand-loyal to put up with anything set in the Harry Potter world.

The film is over long. The special effects - lots of banging and crashing and flashing - are rather wearing; there's no feeling of building to a climax, it just starts off banging and crashing and carries on. The music is well crafted but wrong too, in that it provides too many climaxes too often. Despite the intensity of what's happening I was checking my watch after half an hour.

It's a shame because it looks great, and there are vague hints that there might have been a better, more interesting and character-driven story. The anti-magic fundamentalist campaigners are more or less wasted. There's some connection between the leading campaigner and the main female character, because we see her in the memories that are extracted as the latter is about to be executed - but I can't explain what it is. There's a child abuse element (the campaigner woman beat the children in her care) but it's not really explored, and there's a creepy girl child that turns out to be of no significance at all, though it's hinted that she is important. And by the way, why make the leading female character - Tina Goldstein - Jewish (Rowling's first ever Jewish character) and then not have her be Jewish in any way at all?

An eloquent demonstration of the need for "art director's cut" 15-minute versions of films, which show all the sets and clothes but doesn't bother with the plot. Lots of films would benefit from that treatment.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'

One of those 'charming' films about a gradually developing relationship between a curmudgeonly old bloke and a dysfunctional young boy. The boy is placed in the foster care of a couple on an isolated NZ farmhouse, after a bad start he settles down, the foster-mother dies and he and the foster-father disappear into the bush - and are then hunted down by social services, the police, bounty hunters and eventually the army.

It's not quite as charming as the trailer implies, but it was watchable - the more so because of the stunning landscape photography. New Zealand looks amazing - the more so because it never looks pretty. Sam Neil acts well as the curmudgeon, though he's not as dysfunctional in attitude as he ought to be given the character's history and behaviour. Oh, and the film is not suitable for vegetarians.

Social services come off really badly - the woman leading the manhunt is a caricature of all the nasty social workers there ever were, and there is the implication that children in 'care' are allowed to die without much concern or afterthought. New Zealanders - the white ones, anyway - come across as surly, uncommunicative and with unresolved anger issues; I've only been to New Zealand once, from Sydney, and that's exactly how it seemed to me. I've had lots of lovely NZ friends, so sorry if this seems mean - but the whole time I was in the country it felt like a fight was about to break out, and several did.

Obtained via informal distribution and watched on a laptop in bed.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of 'I, Daniel Blake'

It's been a week since I watched this - in a special showing at the Vue Cinema in Stroud, at 10.25pm. Apparently it was put on again because the other shows had been sold out, but there were only six other people at this showing. We all watched it in silence and left in silence.

I didn't sleep much afterwards. It's not that the stories depicted in it were a surprise. I've read plenty of similar cases on social media, and sometimes even in The Guardian. Seeing it depicted as part of a film is powerful, though; and it's made more so because the film doesn't present a black and white picture of almost anyone. Most of the bureaucrats at the DWP aren't specially horrible (apart from the 'Sheila' character), and manage to convey that they are trying to do the best they can of an impossible job. The people who provide the young mum with a job in prostitution don't seem to be evil exploitative pimps, and there's no suggestion that they are ripping her off or abusing her. The two chancers next door importing trainers direct from the factory in Shanghai are decent enough, even though they are a bit careless with their rubbish.

It was a good film, with a few light touches despite the nearly-unremitting misery of the subject matter. It depicted the best in people as well as the worst - the way they'll help each other out, given half a chance. It wasn't Hollywood - it didn't offer unreasonable and implausible consolations; in a Hollywood movie Karen, the young mum, would have been motivated to complete her studies so that she could rise out of her class.

And it made me think a lot about what we - and specifically me - could be doing, now, that would help people like Daniel to endure, survive and resist. I'm not doing much, frankly. I was aware that skills that I have that I take for granted - how to fill in a form online, for example, or format a CV in word - would be really useful to some people. I was also moved to look for Claimants Unions, which I remembered from the 1980s. There are still some around, and maybe I ought to be volunteering or helping out there. I've been reading around the 'solidarity economy' and platform co-ops lately, but couldn't help thinking that however successful any of that was, we'd still need a welfare state to compensate for 'brute luck'.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review of 'Anonymous'

A film about the real author of Shakespeare's plays - the Earl of Oxford in this version. Lovely to look at, but quite confusing in terms of narrative structure, so that by the end I was quite confused as to who was who and whether it mattered. Not helped by the fact that the fashions don't seem to change, so lots of ruffs, wispy beards and long hair - or by the fact that Queen Elizabeth appears throughout the film at different ages (I know it's flashbacks, and I don't need the screen to dissolve to tell me it's a flashback, but I still got muddled). There's a complex structure of two frame-tales as well - we start with Derek Jacobi talking to a theatrical audience in Broadway (we know it's Broadway because there is an establishing shot of him arriving), which is presumably there to tell American audiences that Shakespeare is part of their heritage; and then we see Ben Johnson arrested and tortured to reveal something or other. At the end of the film we return first to Ben Johnson and then to Jacobi - did we really need both of these?

But I did enjoy the film...lots of good acting (I especially liked the creepy, manipulative mediocrity that is Shakespeare, played by Rafe Spall)and dialogue, and great CGI to make C16-17th London, especially the Frost Fair on the Thames scene near the end.

Watched on the screen in the Middle Floor at Springhill, via the DVD player.

Review of 'Tale of Tales'

A stunning-looking Italian film, made in English with English-speaking actors, this is a set of three fairy-tales. They aren't really linked, except in a slightly gratuitous scene at the end, which contributes nothing to the plot of any of them.

This is worth watching for the locations alone, which are all in Italy - mainly in the South. The filming is wonderful, but the plots of all of the stories are very odd. There is far too much in them - too many magical objects and events, too many contrived elements, any one of which would have been enough for a story. It gives the tales a very dreamlike quality, so that the events happen sequentially but don't unfold out of each other in the way that 'realistic' narratives do.

I note that the tales are based on collections of tales by Neapolitan poet and courtier Giambattista Basile: "Pentamerone or Lo cunto de li cunti (Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones)", though I couldn't imagine anyone exposing contemporary children to anything as horrible as these stories. As I watched I remembered 'Our Ancestors', a collection of stories by Italo Calvino - The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount and The Non-Existent Knight - which had the same sort of dreamlike, implausible quality. Maybe Italian folk-tales are in some way closer to the collective unconscious from which they emerge, unaltered by rational editing to make them flow as stories? I dunno. Any Italian friends or folklorists able to advise?

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via PC and informal distribution.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Solidarity Economy: An Alternative to Capitalism?

Last week I went to this event – a discussion about the solidarity economy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Partly in response to the Westminster political situation, where the Labour leadership is weakly held by a left social democrat with a touching faith in the ability of Parliamentary politics to bring about real and lasting social, economic and political change, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. It seems to me that it’s unlikely that a Corbyn-led Labour Party can win a majority in Parliament; but even if it does, I find it hard to be optimistic that the ability to legislate will translate into actual power. That quote of Gramsci’s about the state being just the forward trench of capitalist power (which unfortunately I can't find at the moment) seems appropriate.

And I’ve also been reading lots of stuff that points in the direction of solidarity economics – Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, various things by Michel Bauwens, and this rather good digest (Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real) by Kevin Carson. I’ve had the tiniest dip into Negri and his ideas about ‘Exodus’, which are at once intriguing and semi-incomprehensible – other people’s paraphrases are easier to understand.

 It seems to point in the direction of a future socialism growing within the body of capitalism, just as capitalism grew within the body of “feudal society” until it was ready to take political power. Mason, and Carson, and several others, seem to be arguing that the power of technology (3D-printing, the internet, smartphones, etc.) makes this possible in a way that it hasn’t been before. Maybe building things – specifically, economic entities like co-ops and exchanges and so on – is a better place to put energy, because it they do get built they’ll be there whoever wins the next election and the one after.
The evening was nice enough. There were some cheerful upbeat presentations of nice projects that were doing well, or were just starting out but sounded like they deserved to do well. Community Land Trusts, community benefit companies, and shared-ownership goats, multi-stakeholder co-ops, and so on.

Things that I noted were:

One of the speakers – (Tony Greenham, Director of Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing Programme at the Royal Society of Arts) wondered aloud if it mattered what this fuzzy-edged phenomenon was called. Would ‘solidarity economy’ sound too…left-wing, and put off some people who might be otherwise enthusiastic? Like Transition Town types, for example, who like resilience and localism but are put off by all those clenched fists and red flags?
It was only a passing comment, and it wasn’t at all representative of the tenor of the meeting – other speakers were insistent that this emerging movement was a political thing – but I think it goes to the heart of one of the essential ambiguities in ‘solidarity economy’ and also the heart of my uncertainty about it.

What we call this thing will shape it. ‘Sharing Economy’ and ‘Collaborative Consumption’ are now, I think, irretrievably lost. They now refer to platform capitalism and ‘servitization’, not anything outside or antagonistic to capitalism. If we use another term that’s more palatable for ‘solidarity economy’ then it will be extended and shifted to include other stuff like that. This is similar to the mechanism whereby, if briefly, David Cameron managed to co-opt civil society support groups into a substitute for and assault on the welfare state.

I have a more serious concern than the name, though. I can’t help wondering whether the ‘solidarity economy’ will become a pit-prop for capitalism rather than something that will undermine, grow within and ultimately supersede it. After all, capitalism has always managed to sit next to non-capitalist forms of production. The most glaring example, to which socialist-feminists drew attention, was the way in which the ‘social reproduction of labour’ – getting the workers fed and cleaned and ready to go back to work again – was carried out in the sphere of the household/family, outside the terms of capitalist value creation. There were no wages for housework. Something similar happens in some places (Thailand, for example) with subsistence farming alongside capitalist industry. Workers can grow some food for themselves and thus the wage rate that the market will bear can be lower, because it doesn’t need to cover the full cost of feeding those workers. The relationship between the non-capitalist slave-traders of Africa and the Atlantic economy of capitalist agriculture might be another example.

So the solidarity economy could be more of a sticking-plaster or a safety-valve for capitalism, rather than the seeds of something that will eat it from within. Co-ops and community benefit companies can take over the labour-intensive, low-margin activities that capitalism can’t do all that well or all that profitably – social care, domestic work and ‘tasks’, car-washing without machines. Capitalism can keep high-tech manufacturing, and finance.

Does this really matter, if at least some people get to run their own decently managed employment? Yes, it does. Capitalism inherently makes for a more unequal society, and that makes everyone more miserable. Capitalism thrives and depends on the creation of unmet desires – unhappiness. And its financial model absolutely requires growth without end, which is in principle incompatible with a finite planet and in practice undermining the chances that humanity will ever find a way to leave within the constraints of our environment. We really do need to put an end to it and replace it with something better, not save it from itself.

I think what follows from this is that, as a minimum, solidarity economy activities need to be consciously about something bigger than themselves.  They ought to be located within the fabric and the context of a wider movement for social change that’s about equality, empowerment, democracy and sustainability. Worker-managers in the solidarity-economy organisations ought to know why what they are doing is important, so that they can do the things that matter better. If the wider movement is going to support them, with our wallets and with our campaigns (for example, for something like that Spanish social procurement directive), then we have a right to expect something more than a new generation of small business entrepreneurs.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of 'Free State of Jones'

Watched this after giving up on Ghostbusters - quite a contrast. Serious, thoughtful, lots of politics...a film about the class struggle within the Confederacy as some poor farmers, deserters and escaped slaves band together to defend their own rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of survival (there isn't much happiness in this film). Some very bloody battle and field hospital scenes at the beginning, but after that it's mainly quiet and beautiful to look at. Not obvious in the way that a relationship develops between the charismatic poor white and the escaped house slave woman, and most of that is left to our imagination.

A good account of the politics of Reconstruction, including some things I hadn't heard about - like the Union League in the South.

There's a lot of religion, and some themes that I think will resonate differently with Americans - the poor are able to protect themselves against the depredations of the state because they have guns. And our poor black and white heroes are betrayed by both the Confederacy and the Union; though they briefly think of themselves as fighting for the North, and  raise its flag when they take a town, they are let down and realise they can only look to themselves. I think even a right-wing Tea Party type would find much to enjoy in this film, despite its opposition to racism and the KKK.

Review of Ghostbusters (2016)

Gave up watching this because it was so awful. I started with high hopes. I really like Melissa McCarthy - her character in Bridesmaids was enough to persuade me to give this a chance, despite the terrible reviews. I liked the original film (watched it with the kids lots of times), but I wasn't offended by the idea of remaking with a woman-centred cast, as so many of the people who threw shit over the film seemed to have been.

But it was dire - not funny at all. Obvious, contrived, perfunctory - rushing through anything that might have been a plot to get to the big scenes with the special effects (which frankly weren't that good either). Maybe it got better after 40 minutes, but I didn't stay to find out.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, through the projector and my laptop. Film obtained via an informal distribution network, for which I am grateful - imagine if I had paid to watch this.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Review of 'Ashby'

Potentially interesting but ultimately disappointing high school comedy, in which student Ed finds himself increasingly involved with his terminally-ill neighbour who is a retired CIA assassin. The disappointment is because this film wants to have its cake and eat it - so Ed is at once a thoughtful intellectual who rejects the predominant jock-dominated school culture but also longs to be on the football team. Instead of exploring the tension the film just descends into conventional underdog sport tropes, which culminates in nerdy Ed scoring the winning touchdown and becoming accepted by the team and the school. Sure he makes fun of the coach and the football squad values, but ultimately it's all about the touchdown.

Similarly lovable ex-killer Ashby has a basement full of weapons and CIA memorabilia, but neither he nor the film questions the morality of 92 out of the 93 hits he carried out - only the local murder of an environmental protestor, which he was tricked into performing for selfish business reasons by three former colleagues who stood to benefit. Apart from that one none of the other murders causes him, or the film, any problems - it's OK to assassinate people who really were 'enemies of the state', you just mustn't kill people who have been wrongly designated thus. Ugh.

Watched on Netfix via Chromecast. This got 4.5 stars from Netflix's own ratings, which may be an indicator of how the US election is about to go.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Review of 'Captain Fantastic'

I absolutely loved this film - that doesn't happen often. It's about a dad bringing his kids up in the US North West, away from a civilisation whose values he rejects. The kids are 'home' educated (home is a log-cabin-cum-tepee) to an extraordinary level. They spend a lot of time reading and discussing books, and the dad doesn't treat them as too young to understand anything - death, mental illness (their absent mother is bipolar, and much of the plot is about how the family deals with her funeral after her suicide), rape, drugs.

The film is sympathetic to the family's perspective. They aren't nasty right-wing survivalists, though they hunt and forage. They share a leftist perspective on capitalism and consumerism, and celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday instead of Christmas. But there's tension, and conflict, and unplanned encounters with the 'real' world. There's a proper plot, with a crisis and its resolution (no spoilers here), and we gradually come to see that there's another way of looking at the family, its rejection of American values and its own way of life.

There's some good use of music, but little manipulative incidental music, which I welcomed - I hate it when there's music just to make you feel a particular way.

There's a lot of subtlety in the characterisations, and the children actors are really good - not mawkish at all. I wasn't entirely sure about the ending, but you can make up your own mind.

Watched at 6pm in a nearly-empty Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review of "Bridget Jones's Baby"

This is exactly what you'd expect - some slapstick, some relationship humour, a lot of stuff about being a singleton woman struggling to control weight and meet Mr Right...but as long as you're not expecting Proust there are some laughs, and it's nice to look at. Almost too nice - this is Richard Curtis London, not the real one where people actually live. Bridget is still in her flat that's literally a stone's throw from Borough Market, but she can still walk in heels to Ealing where Mr Darcy allegedly lives, a route that seems to include several illuminated Thames bridges. The NHS hospital where she goes to be treated by Helen Mirren, her consultant, is beautiful, clean and mainly empty, and the consultant is available when she goes in to labour in the middle of the night.

A couple of other things I noticed; most of the time Bridget is a soppy cow whose stupidity and clumsiness provide many of the jokes. But we get a few looks at her bookshelf which suggest otherwise. When she quits her news-producer job, saying that perhaps one day integrity will be back in fashion, she goes home and we see a John Pilger book in the right hand side of the frame. Earlier there were a few old Penguin books around, of the kind not chosen for the cover picture.

Also one of the themes is that true love defies algorithms that could be used to predict which matches will and won't succeed. Mr Darcy's rival is a cerebral American billionaire who  has used his knowledge of mathematics to create a fact-based, science-based dating site. But Bridget ends up choosing Mr Darcy  - a nod to the 'anti-expert' and 'post-factual' zeitgeist, perhaps. Incidentally she's almost certainly wrong in doing this; Mr Darcy has shown himself to be cold and distracted through several movies, whereas the American is genuinely engaged and loves her just as much.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review of 'The Circle' by David Eggers

A rather good dystopian satire on Google and the world of social media/Web2.0. Very well written, with a plot and characters that work in themselves (not always the case with dystopian fiction). I thought the final denoument was a bit obvious, but that didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the book.

I particularly like the portrayal of the pompous 'internet for good' stuff with online petitions and sending 'frowns' to the Chinese government. This has made me think about my own social media use - I'm not as obsessed as the characters in the book, but they are caricatures and I'm an actual person. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review of 'Cafe Society'

One of the better of Woody Allen's more recent films - a love triangle tale set against the background of 1940s Hollywood and New York. A young, slightly awkward Jewish kid moves to LA to get a job with his big-shot agent uncle, who ignores for a while and then makes him a sort of personal gopher. He develops a relationship with the boss's beautiful PA, who has an absent boyfriend but really likes our goofy hero, only the absent boyfriend turns out to be the uncle-boss, who is married.

There's a proper plot, and a sub-plot involving the family back home in New York, which features a gangster brother - who acquires a nightclub that eventually becomes the eponymous 'Cafe Society'. It's beautifully shot, full of beautiful women in gorgeous clothes, with both Hollywood and New York looking stunning. A nice soundtrack with lots of Jazz clarinet.

It's a little bit shallow, but not as silly as some of Allen's recent efforts, and a nice mix of humour and pathos. Others have drawn attention to the way in which it's an idealised white version of the 1940s, and it is - the only Black people I noticed were Jazz musicians in a dive bar to which the goofy hero improbably brings his lovers, the only Hispanics the staff in an improbably picturesque cheap restaurant. It's also noteworthy how it's mainly the working-class Jewish characters who provide the laughs, like the crude mechanicals in a Shakespeare play; in the days of Annie Hall the WASPs were also funny, and here they are mainly not - though there are some laughs about the way the tall blonde Oklahoma beauty that the hero eventually marries thinks of Jews as exotic (probably not all that silly or unlikely in the real 1940s).

Watched at Woodford Odeon with my mum and brother.

Review of 'Brooklyn'

A gentle, romantic, period drama about immigration and emigration. Kind sweet Eilis doesn't much like the small-minded small town in early 1950s Ireland where she lives, and her kind sister arranges for her to emigrate to New York. Apart from being sick on the boat, and a certain amount of teasing from her new boarding-house friends - and not immediately taking to her job as a salesgirl in a department store - everything goes pretty well. She studies at night school and goes to local dances. She misses home a bit, but soon she find a nice Italian boy who is kind and gentle. She loves his so  they get quietly married but tell no-one.

And then the kind sister dies, and she goes back to Ireland for the funeral, and sort of doesn't get round to telling anyone about the husband back home, or answering the husband's letters. And suddenly the little town doesn't seem so bad any more, and she gets a temporary job helping out  at a factory with her newly-learned book-keeping skills, and she meets a nice local boy who she doesn't mean to lead on, but she does...

And this is the only bit of dramatic tension in the film, and it is achieved by making Eilis behave entirely out of character. She's not been anything like this at all before, and it's only the nice music and the beautiful shorts (including close-ups of her open but conflicted face) that make it at all plausible. And it's not very plausible.

It's all resolved more or less happily, with a touch of poignancy about the life she leaves behind.

Netflix via Chromecast.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of 'Trumbo'

A relatively straightforward bio-pic, about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Conveys some of the misery of the McCarthy period, but of course is only about what it felt like to the rich and  successful leftists of Hollywood - here, as pretty much everywhere, there's nothing at all about all the less exalted people persecuted by the ascendant right wing...though to give the film its due, it does at least show that liberal Democrats were as much the victims of McCarthy and HUAC as were actual Communists. A more or less happy ending, because Trumbo's story does have one, and his family held together under the strains, which are depicted in the film; others were less fortunate. I didn't realise Trumbo wrote the screenplay for "Exodus" (the book is described as a "piece of shit" in the film), which just goes to show how you could be a Zionist and a progressive in the 1960s.

Nice to see Bryan Cranston in it - acts well, doesn't do a reprise of his Breaking Bad character.

Watched on a library borrowed DVD at my in-laws, while my father-in-law Issy watched from bed and dozed occasionally. Might be worth re-watching Woody Allen's "The Front" as a complement to this; one of the bland, pleasant characters in it acts as a front for Trumbo and others.

Review of 'Wiener Dog'

Another really sad 'comedy' - full of life's losers, bitterness, despair, deception and self-deception. Oh, and death, and the meaninglessness of death and life. A few laughs here and there, but mainly bleakness - I was close to tears more than once.

Great acting, well shot, and some very good choices of music. Not a bad film at all, but not one that I could say I enjoyed. I suspect that if I hadn't been watching it at the cinema (The Phoenix in East Finchley) I might not have stayed through to the end, which says a lot about watching habits on different media.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Review of 'The Commune'

A really touching, sad film inexplicably billed as a comedy. Well, quite a few laughs, but the main focus is not the challenges of communal living. Instead it's about adultery and infidelity, and what that does to the people involved. The architect-professor who owns the house in which the commune is situated (something he reminds the communards when they confront him at one point) starts an affair with one of his students, and his successful TV producer wife is tolerant and understanding, and suggests he brings his lover to live with them rather than risk losing him altogether. It does not work out well. Does this ever work out well? Are there films (or books, or accounts) of successful happy non-exclusive sexual relationships? I only ever see the other ones.

There's childhood illness and death, and the coming of age of a young woman, going on in the background. It's nicely filmed in a way that really evokes the period. The dialogue is a bit clunky (translation?) but most of the emotional force is carried by the characters' faces rather than their words. Is that a Scandinavian film thing? Perhaps it is.

I note in passing that this is a Swedish-Dutch co-production but set in Denmark, for reasons that I don't understand.

Watched in the cinema - The Phoenix in East Finchley - with a small audience.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review of 'The Barbarian Invasions'

French Canadian sequel to an earlier film about a left-wing academic - in the sequel he's dying of cancer and estranged from his children, but this is supposed to be a sort of wistful comedy. Occasionally well observed, it's also often a bit nasty. The Canadian public hospital is gruesome, inefficient, uncaring, and the father gets the better treatment he needs because his son is grotesquely rich and can afford to send him to the US for tests and equipment unavailable in Canada. The hospital is made worse by unattractive slobbish trade unions who loiter and block things without actually doing or even allowing any work. There is a suggestion that the liberal lifestyle and left wing ideas are funny in themselves.

Watched on a DVD from the library, watched via laptop and HDMI cable to the telly.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Womad 2016

Womad 2016 was lovely, and mainly erased the memory of all the rain-soaked misery of last year. Among the fabulous things and bands we saw were:
We actually did a dance workshop led by Mariana Pinho, who was so pregnant she looked like she might give birth at any moment; this was billed as samba but turned out to be quadrilla, which was probably all for the best as far as I was concerned...quadrilla turns out to be an easy country dance sort of thing.

We went to the Big Green Chat Show on Saturday morning, led by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News. Guests included: Dale Vince of Ecotricity, who was really very impressive and talked about the company's plans for green gas based on bio-digestion of grass (much better than poo, apparently); The One Show reporter Lucy Siegle (also of The Guardian); and head of sustainability at IKEA Joanna Yarrow - both also much more impressive than I was expecting.

One other thing we liked - the Paguro upcycled bags and wallets, made from old inner tubes and so on. May buy some when it's present-time.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Narrative Fork: a new literary term?

The idea of 'unauthorised' sequels to works of literature isn't exactly new. Scarlett was a sequel to 'Gone with the Wind' published many years after the original. There are lots of James Bond sequels by several authors who aren't Ian Fleming. Following the release of Harper Lee's rather late sequel to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' the New Yorker published a quite amusing article on this theme.

A new development, though, is a sequel which ignores previous sequels - as is the case with Alien 5. I think we need a word for this kind of thing, so I am proposing the term 'Narrative Fork', by analogy with the forks in Linux distributions. A narrative fork is a 'sequels branch' which can be defined by the titles in the main stream of sequel from which it deviates. For example, there could be a narrative fork from the Harry Potter series, branching between book two (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and book three (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), in which one of the main characters from the series is killed. Further sequels in this fork would have to remain consistent with each other, but not with the other branch of the fork.

There, I hope that's clear.

A Grauniad article listing some epidemic-related fiction

Available here. Leaves out some of my favourites, including both the book and the film of Blindness.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review of 'Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen'

An unusual Hungarian film, made up entirely of clips (most of them very short) from other movies of widely varying ages and genres. There are occasional Hungarian subtitles but most of the clips are in their original languages.

The clips are assembled so as to tell a simple story, but with many different actors (in many different settings) playing the parts of the two main protagonists. It's a bit like a cross between 'Man With a Movie Camera' and 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'. It's funny and enjoyable, though not really suitable for children - there's a lot of bloody violence at one point, and a prolonged sex-scenes sequence around the middle (who knew there were so many cunnilingus scenes in mainstream films?). I really liked it, though I could have done without the apparently spiritual scenes at the end, when the male character, who we have seen die, comes back for a joyful reunion. The songs are particularly well done, and it's fun to see how many films you can spot.

Watched on DVD in the middle floor of the Common House at Springhill.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of 'We are Many'

A nice but over-long documentary about the anti-war demonstrations of February 2003, dwelling on how big they were and how amazing it was that there was coordination so that multiple demonstrations were held across the world. Lots of talking heads from people that were there and helped to organise it, some nice footage of the demonstrations themselves, and a bit of analysis.

There was recognition that all this effort didn’t stop the war, but a sort of happy ending in that the strength of the movement made it too hard for Cameron and Obama to organise bombing of Syria in support of…who? Several talking heads were allowed to say that if only there had been more demonstrations – if we’d come back every week – then we would have stopped the war.

As with the demonstrations themselves, I ended up feeling flat and a bit despondent. I don’t really buy the Syria argument. I think there was a clear motivation for invading Iraq but there was a much weaker motivation for intervening in Syria, and that the West was relatively content with carrying out a weaker, less purposeful intervention. Also funny that Ed Miliband, who went out on a bit of a limb in opposing the bombing, gets no credit whatsoever in the film.

And I also think that in celebrating so much the size of the march, the film fails in explaining what marches are and aren’t for. Not just a failing of the film, of course, but of the entire non-Parliamentary movement. Going on marches is occasionally uplifting and gratifying (it’s nice to find out that there are lots of other people who feel the same as we do, and there is the sheer pleasure of being in a purposeful crowd, as there is for football supporters), but rarely effective. It bears saying that the most effective protests are those that trigger disproportionately violent crackdowns by the state, particularly when that becomes a PR or political disaster. And even those only lead to something when the political context means that the state cares how it’s perceived – the US during the Cold War was embarrassed by the way that southern police forces repressed Civil Rights marchers, for example, while China didn’t much care what anyone thought of what it did to the protesters in Tienanmen Square.

A well-planned peaceful demonstration that is arranged and co-ordinated in advance with the police, which causes minimal disruption to traffic and shopping, is not going to stop any wars. Complaining that politicians don’t pay any heed to them just sounds like whining. 

Friday, July 01, 2016

Review of 'The New Girlfriend'

An unusual French film about the relationship between a young French woman and the cross-dressing widower of her lifelong best friend. He reveals his secret to her, and they develop a friendship that starts with her taking him shopping and then deepens into something more.

An element that isn't explicit, but nevertheless felt very strong to me, is the extent to which the man's behaviour and desire is narcissistic. He isn't gay - he doesn't want to be a woman. He loves his deceased wife's friend as a woman, and wants to have heterosexual sex with her while dressed as a woman. I think he is really in love with himself as a woman - while she is in love with him as a woman, though a sort of acceptable man-woman, because she's not really gay either, though she's sort of thought about it. She has dreams about loving her dead friend (while she's asleep in her childhood bed in the family's country house), and she flirts with a young lesbian at the gay club to which she takes her cross-dressing friend.

Beautifully shot, with lots of lovely clothes and interiors, and nice stuff. The woman and her blank husband, who barely notices what's going on, are French yuppies. The dead woman, and her family, seem to be Catholic provincial haute bourgeoisie, though I  suspect there are other markers that would situate them more precisely to a French viewer.

It's based on a Ruth Rendell short story, which I must read.

Watched at the Landsdowne Film Club in Stroud - sparsely attended, with everyone giving each other odd looks when it finished.

Review of 'The Fundamentals of Caring'

Unusual quirky film about the relationship between a  young man with something like motor neurone disease (sorry, I missed the very beginning) and his slightly disengaged ex-writer carer. They go on a road trip, pick up waifs and strays along the way, and are sort of redeemed, but without mawkishness and with a lot of humour. Better than I was expecting - particularly great acting by Craig Roberts.

Another Netflix, smartphone and Chromecast viewing.

Review of 'Full Out'

Apparently true story about a girl gymnast who is injured and told she'll never compete again but pushes herself, with the help of a crew of hip-hop dancers, to get her strength and abilities back. Worthy but predictable and dull. Very little to say about it.

Watched on Netflix via smartphone and Chromecast.

Review of 'Jack of the Red Hearts'

A teenage girl living on the skids fakes an ID to get a job as a live-in carer for a family with an autistic little girl...and despite no training or credentials manages to develop enough rapport with the girl to help her. The teenage is doing it so she can be together with her orphaned sister, so she's trying to go straight, clean up her drug habit and put her life of minor criminality behind her.

It's a bit soppy and the anticipated (and telegraphed) disasters implied by leaving a vulnerable child in the sole car of...well, another vulnerable child...don't really materialize, even though the autistic girl wanders off, gets lost, climbs on roofs and so on. The ending is a bit fairy-tale. But its heart is in the right place - the social services aren't the bad guys, the family is more understanding than they ought to be, and I think it's quite a nuanced perspective on autism and what it means for parents to have an autistic child.

Watched on Netflix via smartphone and Chromecast.

Review of 'Sicko'

A Michael Moore documentary, relentlessly polemical but enjoyable and funny too. About how shit the US health care system is, with illustrations as to how much it makes ordinary people suffer and some explanation as to why, and how it got that way. Comparisons with the health care systems of other places (including the UK) that make them seem better than they are - but compared to what people experience in the US the NHS in Britain really does feel like a product of a socialist paradise, even after so many years of battering.

A funny ending in which the little group of victims that he's gathered are taken to Cuba - first to Guantanamo, in an effort to break in to the prison so that they can enjoy the free health care provided to the prisoners there, and then to Havana, where they are given free treatment and treated like heroes. It's a staged stunt, but it's still moving.

A thought - does this convince anyone not already on Moore's side? And if not, does that matter? Is it sufficient to produce polemics that only serve to keep people on our side reassured that we're not all mad, and that there really is a better way?

For the record, watched at a free showing in the Baptist Church in Stroud as part of a 'Stroud Against the Cuts' NHS weekend. There was a discussion afterwards but we didn't stay.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Review of Lady Susan

A fun, enjoyable piece of C18th chick-lit, with lots of nicely observed bitchiness; I'm not sure why this isn't part of the regular Jane Austen canon, because it's beautifully written. It took me about ten minutes to get used to the language. I particularly liked the way Austen manages to progress the story without any third person narrator. The epistolary novel may be very dated form, but it seems bang up to date, sharp and contemporary, here. I'm only sorry that she seems to have given up at the end, so that the denouement comes from the perspective of an omniscient third-party narrator. Actually, I'm also sorry that I couldn't work out what was going on with Lucy Manwairing at the end - I can tell that she is humiliated, but I'm not sure exactly how.

Which leads me to another observation - the characters in this seem like C18th versions of us, but they aren't. They are as foreign as women in ancient Athens or contemporary Saudi Arabia, an idle rich 'leisure class' who live off the labour of others and spend their lives managing the consolidation of property through marriages.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Review of 'Love and Friendship'

A bit of a meringue of a film - too sweet and light, not quite sour and sharp enough for the content. It's a movie treatment of a Jane Austen epistolary novel, Lady Susan, not published in the author's lifetime - and recently 'novelised' by the film's writer. The book is bitchily great, and the film isn't quite good enough. It's clear the cast of luvvies had a lot of fun making it, especially the dressing up and the hair and the sets - Kate Beckinsale alone seems to have three different hair artists working on her. Despite this, though, she's just not mean enough - the Lady Susan in the book is really rather darker.

I note in passing that the best friend character has been turned in to an American - she isn't in the book. Haven't we grown out of that yet?

It's watchable enough though, and there are quite a few laughs, and it did persuade me to read the book (free for kindle, unlike the re-novelisation), so not a complete loss.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill, in one of the newly refitted screens - a bigger screen than previously, sofa seats with little tables on the arms for drinks and snacks. It's clear where the cinema business model is going.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Operation Basalt

A well-written and gripping account of a little-known incident in WW2, this book also raises interesting questions about the nature of historical memory and the purpose of writing history.

In October 1942 with the Axis powers still in the ascendant the British launched a small-scale raid on the German-occupied island of Sark, one of the smallest of the Channel Islands. It was a tiny pinprick against the Nazis, yet it had significant consequences, not only of the people whose lives it touched but also for others far away – civilian and military prisoners who were caught up in the cycle of repression and counter-repression that it triggered, and all those Allied soldiers engaged in commando and partisan warfare, who were henceforth to be summarily executed if captured.

Eric Lee conveys the military and political context of the raid with a deft touch, setting out the background without labouring it. He also describes the raid itself with all the skills of a thriller writer, and it’s easy to imagine oneself there with the commandos, stumbling about in the dark and finding that things aren’t the way they look on maps or aerial photographs. I couldn’t help thinking how we have become used to our present surfeit of information – I can look up any of the unfamiliar terms in the book in a second (even when I’m on a train, as I did yesterday), or check out a Google map or street view of the places mentions. Then, the commandos and their leaders back in Britain had little idea what was going on in the islands – almost impossible to contemplate now.

On the other hand, the extent to which the raid unleashed a round of information warfare seems very modern. It’s hard to believe that the Nazis claimed to be the injured party in breaches of the ‘rules of war’, but they did.

One other thought struck me. This event was relatively recent, and well-defined. It took place within the context of military bureaucracies that tried to keep accurate and detailed records, and several of the participants left eye-witness accounts.

Yet it’s already impossible to dis-entangle some of the details – how many prisoners did the commandos take, and how many casualties were there? What happened to one of the civilians who played a key role? It’s to the author’s credit that he manages to solve some mysteries, shed some light on others, and admit where he is unable to do either.

This is a great and enjoyable book, and I look forward to reading more history by this author.

Review of The Portable Veblen

I picked this up because I rather like the odd economist-anthropologist Thorsten Veblen; I’d used terms like ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘leisure class’ loosely for ages until I actually read him, and found him to be brilliant and insightful, and rather relevant to our emerging post-capitalist civilisation.

But while the main protagonist of this novel is named for and keen on the original Veblen, it’s not really about him at all. Instead, it’s about relationships – between lovers, between parents and children, between siblings, old friends and everyone else. Oh, and trauma-induced brain damage, and medical experiments, and the regulation of medical trials, and the treatment of the mentally ill.

A few pages in I decided that this was not my sort of book at all, but I am so glad that I stayed. McKenzie is a very good writer, with a superb eye for details. There’s a good and well-structured plot for those that need that sort of thing (me), and sometimes the interplay between parents and children, and between siblings and parents, was so good it seemed that she’d been listening in on my sessions with my therapist.

So just read this. And then go read some Veblen too – I went and got myself a new copy of the Theory of the Leisure Class when I finished this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of Florence Foster Jenkins

Much lighter than the recent French film ‘Marguerite’, which was a more fictionalised version of the same story but dwelled more on the tragic aspects of the story. The acting is more camp and over-done, though it’s interesting to see Hugh Grant actually acting. It still has some poignancy, especially in terms of the relationships that MFJ develops with the men around her, who come to care about her feelings enough to protect her from realising how dreadful she is. It also doesn’t shrink from the fact that she had syphilis, which is surely a first in a film designated as suitable for general viewing. And it manages to imply that her pianist is gay without over-doing it.

Also beautiful to look at, in the interiors, the lighting, the costumes, and even the long shots down New York avenues – how did they manage to get the city back to the 1940s? I noticed in the credits that some of it was shot in Liverpool and Glasgow – I wonder which scenes. And a lovely scene with 'Sing Sing Sing' on a gramophone at a party.

Watched at Woodford Odeon, with my mum, in a surprisingly full cinema for a Wednesday night.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review of Sing Street

Disappointing Irish teen band film – so transparently a wish-fulfilment fantasy that it didn’t really hold my attention. Nice premise – posh kid gets sent to tough school because his parents are broke, survives and attracts cute (slightly older) girl by forming a band with his mates. But if we are expecting a teen version of The Commitments, that’s not what we get. The band are brilliant from the very start. He writes brilliant songs with no apparent effort. There’s no conflict within the band, they all practice regularly at one of the band member’s house while his mum bring them tea and snacks, the pretty girl is snaffled straight away – even the lead’s violent school-bully nemesis is won over and becomes the band’s roadie. Too good be true, and too good to be an interesting film.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review of Mustang

A beautiful, sad film about five young girls growing up in a rural community in North Eastern Turkey. Though the reviews seem to present this as a ‘coming of age’ story, it’s something rather nastier than that implies. The girls are brought up by their conservative grandmother and their patriarchal uncle, both of whom are very conservative and apply increasingly strict controls over their lives. The house is gradually turned into a prison from which a family-arranged marriage is the only sanctioned escape, and the girls respond to this in different ways. There are a few light moments when they occasionally break out, but it becomes increasingly dark and claustrophobic. A good advert for mainstream feminism and modern liberal urban life; almost the only decent man in the film is the gay truck delivery man befriended by the girls (they do refer to him as ‘queer’, but it’s only the slightly unusual facial hair that marks him out).

It's a Turkish-German co-production, with great music. It also has a sort of German look to it, which set me to wondering whether that was measurable. Are there national (or personal) styles in film making that would be revealed by statistical analysis – length of static or panning or zooming shots, length and angle of close-ups, time between cuts, etc? I wonder whether there has been any work on this. It seems so obvious that I can’t help thinking someone must have done it.

Anyway Mustang (I don’t know why it’s called that – a Turkish cultural reference that is lost on me?) is a good but sombre film.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review of Dr Strangelove

Somehow I've never got round to seeing this, so I was grateful for the chance to watch it in the Middle Floor at Springhill.

It's horrible, though not in a bad way. Although it's billed as a black comedy there aren't many laughs. It's mainly a believable story about how a rogue air force general goes nuts and starts the slide towards a nuclear war, which then can't be stopped by any human agency.

It's very anti-military, and also quite anti-American. The Russians are largely invisible - the Soviet premier is on the end of a phone line but we don't hear his voice, and the Russian ambassador is mainly decent, though he does take pictures of everything in the secret war room. The Americans are bureaucratic, at least slightly mad, and sex-crazed. I don't think a film like this could be made now, though I suppose 'In the Loop' wasn't all that far off, particularly in the way it portrayed the relationship between the sensible but ineffectual Brits and the crazy but powerful Americans.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review of Electricity

I didn’t know anything about this – just found it on BBC iPlayer while looking for something to do, but it was really rather good. It’s about a Lancashire girl with severe epilepsy searching for her lost brother in the London underclass, and it’s beautifully shot and very well acted, with lots of emotional depth. 
There are a few implausible plot developments (everyone she meets is really nice to her), and she seems to have an enormous cool wardrobe contained within her small wheelie suitcase; in fact she dresses rather too well for the character she is supposed to be playing.
But it’s quality British drama all the same. Lots of stuff about how people can manage their conditions, and about how they are treated as they do so - something I hadn't thought about much for years, but this made me think about it again.
I was sort of puzzled why it appears to be set in the North East when it’s not in London, even though she’s from Lancashire. Maybe that was explained somewhere and I missed it.

Review of 'Miles Ahead'

Not a terrible film, but not a great one either, and Miles deserves better. This is not a full musician biopic, so it misses out on lots of the familiar ‘struggle to be excellent’ themes. Instead it focuses on the fallow period of five years when Miles wasn’t recording or performing; the earlier years are done by flashback. We see some of his early performances, and so on, as recollections. The present – the time when the film’s main narrative is taking place – is more about guns, shoot-outs, car chases and drug deals. 
This means that there isn’t enough about the music; for me the best bits were where Don Cheadle is playing Miles working with other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with the acting – Cheadle acts well, and if he can’t actually play the trumpet (maybe he can?) he can certainly act trumpet playing.Ewan McGregor's fictional Rolling Stone journalist is quite good too.
Just as Miles makes his comeback and starts playing again the film ends – not before time, because it’s quite long, and the car chases got on my nerves. But I’m sorry it ended where it did, and that there wasn’t more about the creativity rather than about the tortured-ness of it all.
Watched on the cinema screen in a nearly empty Holloway Odeon.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Review of 'I Married a Communist' by Philip Roth

This is one of the good Roth books (I really hate some of them) – well written, and with several important subjects addressed; McCarthyism, the failure of the American Left, and relationships between people with…um…issues.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. It has a weird structure, with a youngish narrator being told most of the events by an older man recalling them…only the narrator was there for some of the narrative so can provide his own perspective – and sometimes it becomes hard to remember who is talking or what they are saying. It’s a bit muddled and confusing, and not strictly necessary.

It starts out exploring the impact of the blacklist on people’s lives, and the impulses that drove good people into first the Henry Wallace Progressive movement and then to the Communist Party. It covers well the fine impulses that drove people there, and also the sheer misery of the CP’s twists and turns and what they meant for those people. It explains how the New Dealers and liberals were the real target of the red-baiters, and how much nasty score-settling went on.

But two thirds of the way it seems to change tack and sentiment; the liberal and communist characters are suddenly driven not by personal or political conviction but by their own emotional flaws. Some of this is revelation of the plot, and some of it feels like Roth changed his mind and started to write a different book.

And the portrayal of the mutually destructive relationship between the main protagonist and his wife, and her previous destructive relationships with men and with her daughter, are really horrible. It’s put into the mouths of those characters who are generally reliable and insightful witnesses, so we are supposed to take it as a true and honest account.

This is just misogyny, spiced up with some racial and class awkwardness. The knowledge that this is really about Roth’s relationship with Claire Bloom, and that many of the facts map on to the real story, makes it skin-crawling.

At the end Roth brings it back to the historical events covered in American Pastoral – the failure of liberalism in the face of Black-led riots and urban degeneration. It’s all hopeless and depressing, and the moral is that those who pursue political or civil goals based on the possibility of change are fools who waste their own time and put themselves and those they care about in harm’s way. There is some ‘bracketing’ of the view, but the argument against it which is offered doesn’t feel strong or deeply felt.

Very painful to read much of the time, although it is a mostly good book.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Review of 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Hard to know how to review this. It's much too long, for a start. Jordan Belfort is too disgusting a person with whom to spend three hours - doesn't Scorsese know how to indicate that time passes actually having to pass? The film does show how nasty the crowd around him and his brokerage company was, but it's mostly in terms of their moral depravity - drugs and hookers. There isn't much sense that what they in business terms was wrong, and had victims - just that it was against the rules. And Belfort is portrayed as someone with his own moral code, that he stuck too - he never ratted on his real friends, the guys from his neighbourhood that he recruited to run the company with him. (In this he is rather like the Mafia types in Scorsese's Goodfellas; maybe that's the best way to think about Wall Street, as just another organised crime gang.) Even when he's wearing a wire because he has become a cooperative witness, he takes risks to indicate to them that he is doing so - though inexplicably that doesn't seem to have any consequences. He still only serves three years, in a nice prison with tennis courts.

That's the message of the whole film, really, that this stuff doesn't have consequences. His marriage is wrecked, mainly by his drug and hookers habits - but he didn't seem to care much about any of that anyway. After his imprisonment he's still giving motivational lectures on selling. Of course, it would be wrong for this to have a happy ending, with justice being served and the evil-doers getting their just desserts. That isn't what happens in real life, and it would be implausible to tell a financial story that ended that way. There is a touch of consolation in the familiar Hollywood theme that the rich and powerful aren't any more happy than the rest of us, but even that is not really carried through. A certain kind of young man seeing this film would think of it as a recruiting commercial for the financial services industry.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Review of 'Frozen'

My kids were grown up by the time this came out, and they are possibly of the wrong gender too, so I never got to see this. This weekend we decided that since so many little girls have grown up with it, it must be a cultural reference point, and we ought to see it anyway. So we watched it from a DVD in the Middle Floor at Springhill Cohousing.

It was much, much better than I was expecting. The merchandise from the film is of course aimed at providing stuff to buy for the little-girl fans. But the film itself is quite dark, and touches on some quite heavy issues - the things that are never talked about in families, what it feels like to have an older sibling grow away from you, having powers (feelings) that you can't control. The love between sisters is a major theme and well handled. Even the silly snowman character, who is unaware that his enjoyment of warmth will bring about his own demise, brings up some stuff about mortality.

It's also worth noting that it comprehensively trashes the idea that you will know true love when you find it - and I was pleased to see that the worst baddie doesn't look or sound like a villain at all, at least for most of the film. We are as taken in as the characters in the film.

It's great the way it engages with Norse and Sami mythology, and the look of it is really great - though there are goofy comic characters, and the marshmallow monster was lame and not frightening, some of the others are well drawn and wouldn't look out of place in Studio Ghibli steampunk. I particularly liked the way that the ships looked, and the vision of frozen Oslo. The ice storm effects, and the way that the ships crash about towards the end, are very effective.

Interesting that some of those who watched it with us, and who had seen it several times before, felt the need to disparage it as soppy, even though they clearly wanted to watch it again.

The poster above is the soppiest version - there were others which looked darker, and which emphasise the relationship between the film and the Hans Christian Andersen story, 'The Snow Queen', on which it is based.