Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of 20th Century Women

A feminist coming of age film about a boy, being raised by his single mother in late 1970s Santa Barbara, with the help of her young female art-school punk lodger who is recovering from cervical cancer and a fragile, damaged younger woman who literally sleeps with the boy but doesn't want sex to spoil their relationship, though he clearly feels otherwise.

This is a really good film, with nice observations, and great acting, and a way of addressing the emergence of feminism as it appears to a sympathetic boy as he turns into a man. As a bloke watching feminist films I sometimes feel like I am the problem (not unreasonably) but this was both pointed and pointful, but at the same time a joy to watch.

Lots of great scenery in Southern California, some emergence of punk footage, and lots of good teen stuff too.

It happens to be the period in which I came of age too, and it's striking how much it seems to be in a parallel universe - at one point we get Jimmy Carter's 1979 State of the Union message, and whatever you think of Carter, it's hard to imagine how one could ever get from an America in which that mensch was president to this one.

Watched on Amazon Prime on the new TV.

Review of Amnesia

A post-holocaust movie set in Ibiza, and without any holocaust stuff at all. Young German DJ/producer moves to Ibiza for his career, finds himself living next door to an older woman who [SPOILER ALERT] turns out to be a German who refuses to speak the German language because of what happened to her young Jewish love during the war. They develop a relationship (which he thinks is romantic love, but she knows better) but it's all thrown into turmoil when his mother and much-loved grandfather come to visit, causing everyone to re-examine their pasts and the stories they tell about it.

It's beautiful, and Ibiza looks stunning, and even the clubs (especially the one called Amnesia - geddit?) look great. I'm afraid I was a bit annoyed by a film that focused on the holocaust from the perspective of how it felt to people who were either perpetrators (the grandfather, portrayed by Bruno Ganz, who has told various conflicting stories about his role as a 'rescuer') or who were...well, what is my issue here? She lost a loved one. Does that make her, a non-Jewish German who was herself never under threat but fled to Switzerland, a holocaust survivor?

I've been critical of other holocaust films before which focus on the experience of German and Austrian I subconsciously think that the holocaust was only about what happened to 'my' people, the Jews of Poland and Eastern Europe that were the object of the explicit policy of extermination? Maybe I do...

Aside from that this is not a bad film and worth watching. We watched on Netflix, on our new TV  but via Chromecast rather than via the native Netflix support...slightly easier to manage...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An economics reformation

I went to this event yesterday at UCL - Time for an Economic Reformation. Mainly focused on the academic discipline of Economics and its teaching, with the mission of reforming what is taught and studied - rather than about revising economic thought per se...there seemed to be a view, not explicitly stated, that there wasn't much of a need for new thinking itself, just for the academic discipline to reflect the new thinking that was already around.

Good, clear speakers - perhaps a function of the fact that almost all the panel were women? But the only man, Steve Keen, was also very clear, even though I find much of the econometrics that he presents pretty incomprehensible. Other panelists were: Victoria Chick; Mariana Mazzucato; Kate Raworth, of Doughnut Economics fame; and Sally Svenlen, of the Rethinking Economics student group.

The audience was also star-studded - Hilary Wainright, Charlie Leadbetter, and my favourite - David King, formerly Chief Scientist at DECC, who spoke from the floor with some passion - about how the extent to which our economic system had undermined the ability of our species to continue living on our planet was something of an indictment of our economic theories.

Panel chaired by Larry Elliot, economics editor of The Guardian, and event as a whole compered by Andrew Simms of the New Weather Institute (I hadn't heard of that before).

Good discussions, sensible contributions - nothing that made me groan, though equally nothing that looked like it was the key to a root and branch transformation of economic life and organisation. I suspect that one of the reasons for this, and for the slightly lackluster nature of the '33 Theses for an Economics Reformation' is that it's pitched as a conversation with mainstream economists. So though the implications of what is proposed might actually be very radical (as Andrew Simms proposed) it's all positioned as super-sensible.  Mariana Mazzucato cited Polanyi in her short contribution (which was sparkling and interesting) but there wasn't anything in the proposals that matched up to his ideas about how economies are made and unmade.

Delightfully, we were all asked to comment on the 33 Theses. I didn't contribute, but if I had I might have mentioned that the importance of 'intellectual property' - patent and copyright based monopolies - seemed to be missing; and that there wasn't anything about the process whereby economic ideas move from economists to public discourse (as discussed in this paper by Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Michael Jacobs), and at length in‘Inventing the Future’ by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek - see my review here.

I think that this second aspect is really important; one of the ways in which what is often called 'neo-liberalism' has been so successful is that it's really hard to think about other kinds of economic relationships, outside the framework of 'market economics'. Pseudo-economic ideas about governments not being able to spend more than they 'earn', and about the private sector as the only place where value is created, become the commonsense of our age. Making other kinds of ideas into common sense is a key task for any economic reformation.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of 'The Fencer'

Beautiful to look at Estonian film (actually a Finnish-Estonian co-production, but I've never seen an Estonian film before) set in the early 1950s and featuring a young fencer who moves to a small town to become a PE teacher and ends up starting a fencing club for his students. He's on the run from the secret police because he was conscripted into the German army and has to choose between loyalty to his committed pupils (who want to go to a fencing competition in Leningrad, where he is wanted) and maintaining his low profile. He goes, and then it turns into one of those underdog sports team films. It's well made, without cliches, and the Estonian kids are great.

It's very washed out and grim looking, and the Estonian people and landscapes look very authentic. I was a bit uncomfortable about the way the film treats his 'conscription' into the German army. Estonia and Finland both seem to me to have not really reflected very much on the fact that they fought on the side of the Nazis. It is perhaps forgiveable (if wrong) that young Estonian men thought the Nazis were the lesser evil compared to the Soviets, but some recognition that they were evil, and that they chose to do a bad thing that might have had even worse consequences seems warranted. That rarely happens.

My extensive research (well, the Wikipedia article) tells me that the Estonians who fought for the Nazis were volunteers, not conscripts, and that they fought in a Waffen SS Legion. Most Estonian Jews escapted (some taken into the USSR by the occupying Soviet armies in 1940-41 but there were massacres of those that remained, of Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and Jews from other countries in concentration camps located in Estonia.

The film depicts ruthless Soviets hunting down kindly Estonians; naturally it doesn't reflect that the west was by the early 1950s running networks of former Nazi collaborators as anti-communist partisans, the Forest Brothers.

Watched at the Lansdown Film Club on a proper cinema screen on a very snowy and cold night, which made the whole experience more authentic.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Review of 'Band of Brothers'

Read this, about a volunteer company in the US 101st Airborne (paratroopers) and their experiences in WW2. I found the parts about their training, and the psychological and sociological process of becoming a unit, very interesting - the shot-by-shot descriptions of the actual fighting less so. The battles mainly seem like a series of cock-ups redeemed by the iniative and bravery of the men on the spot; curious that one of the features for which the men were screened was a positive attitude towards authority, and yet authority seems to have let them down again and again.

Very aware that I would not in any way have been capable of anything that these men went through. I'm not any kind of tough, don't have much willpower or endurance, don't have the kind of positive attitude that they did (see what I did with that cynical thought about cock-ups and authority?). Wonder what that says about me as a man, and very glad that there are more ways to be a man than there used to be.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review of "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

One of those books that you think you've read, but you haven't. In my mind it was a frothy quirky romantic comedy sort of thing. On reflection after reading the book I thought it might have been because I was influenced by the film, only then I realised I hadn't actually seen the film either...just seen the poster with Audrey Hepburn looking pretty and cute, and maybe seen a few clips. I'll remedy the film thing shortly.

But the book turns out to be really dark, and rancid, which is not surprising given that it's Truman Capote. It is a fine piece of writing, though it's hard to ignore the casual racism with which Holly Golightly peppers her speech. Holly is not quite a prostitute - Capote subsequently described her as an American Geisha, though that's not quite right either...she's more of a professional mistress, in the French nineteenth century mode. The book is very direct about what that involves, physically and emotionally. Most of the men to whom Holly makes herself available are pretty nasty - Mafia Dons, pro-Nazi tycoons, and so on. She is almost totally devoid of sentimentality herself. The denoument is not exactly unexpected, but the book is well structured and plotted, and a pleasure to read despite the material and the tone.

It's set at a time in which people like the narrator, an aspiring writer without money or success, can apparently afford to rent his own apartment in Manhattan - something that seems much further away than the sexual and social mores it depicts. Oh, and it's war time, 1943, though that barely intrudes on the narrative, apart from the odd military parade in the city. Somehow that seems to magnify the cynicism of the book.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Review of 'A Scanner Darkly' - Philip K Dick

I watched the animated film made from this book a while back, and thought it was good, but this is really powerful. I've never been addicted to any kind of narcotic or hallucinogenic drug, but this book feels right as it describes, from the inside, the dissolution of a mind and a personality. A lot of the book is autobiographical, transposed into a then-future of 1994 because Dick didn't believe he could sell a book that didn't have a science-fiction dimension. It's about the world of loser stoners that he himself was inhabiting, and contains a moving afternote dedication to the young people he hung out with who had since died or ended up mad.

The plot is about an undercover police agent, who is cracking under the strain of maintaining two personalities and narratives, exacerbated by the fact that in his report-back to his handler he must remain anonymous and invisible as a safeguard against corruption, and is required to spy on his own alter-ego,,,all while his brain is deteriorating under the impact of the drugs he is taking to maintain his cover.

It's intentionally hard to distinguish between reality and the character's paranoid fantasies and illusions. Of course stoners are often paranoid, and Dick was himself a clear example; but the real stories of what transpires in the shadowy world of parapolitics and the deep state, and its overlap with the world of drug trafficking, are as weird and alarming as anything a paranoid would make up. We'd call it all conspiracy theories, except that some of these conspiracies actually happened. Alfred McCoy's "The Politics of Heroin: Central Intelligence Agency Complicity in the Global Drug Trade" is a good place to start if you want to know more about that sort of thing.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Review of Loving Vincent

Visually remarkable animated film about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh, done in the style of his paintings, and involving hundreds of artists. It's presented as a mystery, with the son of Vincent's last host going to the town where he died, ostensibly to deliver a letter but becoming drawn into elucidating the confused circumstances of his last days. Did he really commit suicide, or...

Watched at the Vue cinema in Stroud, at a special lunchtime showing.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of Carol

An oddly soulless film, given that it was supposed to be about a forbidden and taboo love affair between two women (one older, one younger) in 1950s New York. Rooney Mara looks like a young Audrey Hepburn, Cate Blanchett looks like some kind of alien - her face just isn't put together right. And although she manages to convey feeling between herself and her daughter, and even between herself and her not-loved husband, there doesn't seem to be any feeling between Carol and the young Therese.

The film is beautiful to look at, though. It's dominated by long lingering shots of things, which are beautifully depicted and very evocative. There's a shot of a camera being loaded with 35mm film, which is already more alien to many people than writing with a quill pen. We also see Therese developing a film in a darkroom, which reminded me of doing the same thing with my dad in our kitchen - does anyone recognize those smells nowadays? There are shots of Therese playing records on a huge wooden gramophone - kids today would recognize a turntable and a needle/cartridge/arm because vinyl is still alive, but what was the point of such a huge piece of furniture to host a record deck? In the unlikely event that we had gramophones now, they'd be flatpack and made out of MDF - but this was clearly something made by skilled cabinet-maker...another thing that more or less doesn't exist now.

Lots of fabulous clothes, and textures - of walls, tables, payphones. Everything was so big in the 1950s - cars, steering wheels and gear sticks (with big white balls on the end). Suitcases. Bedsteads - even though the beds themselves looked rather small - when did the King Size bed arrive?

The score is quite wonderful too; I was convinced it was by Philip Glass as I watched the film, but it's not - it's just very much like his work.

Watched on Amazon Prime on our new clever TV....two Amazon Prime films in two days. It does seem to have more good stuff than Netflix.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Review of Jackie

A longish film about the JFK assassination and its aftermath, including the background conflicts about the funeral, from the perspective of Kennedy's wife Jacqueline Bouvier.

The most notable thing about this (everybody knows, or thinks they know, about the assassination itself) is the non-linear structure of the narrative. The film darts about between the assassination, the immediate aftermath, a later interview that Jackie gives to a carefully selected and briefed journalist, the earlier episode in which she had welcomed TV cameras into the White House and another in which Pablo Casals performs for the President and his entourage. And yet it's never confusing, even though there is no heavy-handed signalling as to where these segments fit together temporally. Is that because it's particularly well done, or have we all just got very good at reading this sort of thing?

I thought it conveyed very well the ambivalence and ambiguity about Jackie's response to the death of JFK - it managed to show both her vulnerability/fragility and the extent to which she and other members of the family (especially Bobby) were thinking strategically about how the funeral would create JFK's legacy.

BTW I knew that Jackie subsequently married Aristotle Onassis, but I didn't know that she did a proper job as a book editor for the twenty years after the assassination.

Watched on our new clever TV via entirely legitimate Amazon Video.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Review of 'In the Heart of the Sea'

A visually stunning sea-faring movie, with lots of sails ripping, masts splintering and so on. It's based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick, about a Nantucket whaling ship called the Essex that was sunk by a white whale bent on revenge. Melville appears in the film, interviewing the now-older sailor who was one of the survivors of the disaster, and helping him to resolve his torments via a talking cure of telling his story.

The film wasn't on release for long, which is a bit of a surprise because it's very well made. The cinematography is really really felt like I was on the ship, in the storms and out on the whaling boats.

Of course no-one has much sympathy with whaling now, but it's impossible not to be struck by the bravery of the men involved; it was brave and physically demanding for anyone to put to sea in tiny fragile boats, but the demands of whaling were so much more - going out in tiny boats, being dragged across the rough seas by huge whales, fires on deck to boil down blubber...

It does make it clear just how significant the discovery of oil in the ground was - it gets a mention towards the end of the film. For the northern world whale oil was an industrially significant source of fuel for lamps. Only the non-availability of other sources in sufficient quantities could have justified the effort and risk to which the whalers subjected themselves; only the absence of other sources of employment could have compelled men to take up such work.

Watched on TV via Chromecast, PC, Chromestream - and informal distribution.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Some things I particularly liked in 'Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities'

Most of them are from Seoul, where I once spent a day and a half on the gruelling Ovum Asia-Pacific tour, but nevertheless have positive memories.
  • Kozaza and Lobo Korea – local alternatives to Airbnb
  • Woozoo – a house-sharing platform and social enterprise
  • Wonderlend and Billi – platforms for sharing goods.
  • Socar – car sharing
  • Kiple – for exchanging children’s clothes
  • Zipbob – a meal sharing platform

 Sadly, few of them have anything much to read in English.

Review of Run Lola Run

A German film from 1998 which illustrates the contingency of events. Lola's drug-dealer boyfriend is in trouble, and she has twenty minutes to come up with DM100,000 to pay off his boss. We see the same story play out three times, in which small changes (whether she trips on the stairs leaving her flat) have consequences as to what happens thereafter. (BTW It's not a patch on Hal Hartley's Flirt, in which we see three different films with exactly the same dialogue).

It's a nice idea, but the film isn't really satisfying. Unlike say Sliding Doors it doesn't play by its own rules - we don't really see the consequences of a single action because other new elements are introduced into the three versions of the story line. And the film looks really dated - not just in the big red landline phone that Lola uses, and the payphone from which the boyfriend calls, but also in the annoying jump cuts and animation inserts.

Watched on TV from a usb drive, the film having been earlier obtained via informal distribution network.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review of 'People First Economics'

Too bad Amazon doesn't let me give this three-and-a-half stars, because that's what I think it deserves. I've only just read it, which seems a bit unfair because it was published in 2009. Some of it feels very dated (lots of hope and expectation about Obama in some of the chapters); I think a contemporary version would be sharper about the way in which not just 'neoliberalism' but also mainstream liberals abandoned the inhabitants of their countries' rust belts, and how this led to Trump and Brexit, and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe.

There isn't much about the economics of migration, or about 'platform capitalism' either - not surprising, but a warning that it's easy to miss what's coming. On the other hand, there is quite a lot about the Commons, which illustrates how long ideas about that have been swilling no particular end?

Some very good essays - I was particularly impressed by Susan George and Naomi Klein, but also by Walden Bello (who I had never heard of) on emerging global social democracy and Danny Chivers on Climate Choices - the latter was really good and still valid eight years on.

I'd still like a primer on progressive economics that was definitively, robustly argued but easy to read. This is easy to read but despite the variety of authors and scope doesn't cover everything. On the other hand, I think it has persuaded me to re-subscribe to New Internationalist.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review of 'Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities'

I loved and hated this. There's so much in terms of examples and analysis of the sharing economy, but I found the structure (an example of a city and the way it demonstrates particular aspects of sharing, and then a general discussion of those aspects...which touches on the cities in the other chapters) confusing, and the language downright impenetrable. It's hard to believe that I could once read and write the language of academic social science - now I find it impossible to engage with. I really have to fight to engage with content that's written like this. I notice it particularly in the sentence structure, which could easily be fixed either by the authors or by a tougher editor - but also in the choice of words, and in particular in the use of everyday words in special meanings.

A real shame, because the authors have a superb depth of knowledge and understanding, and the book is full of links and references that make it a great gateway...I hope that they write another, more accessible one soon, perhaps with more of a handbook for activists and cities feel.

Review of 'Mudbound'

Well-crafted period drama about racism and poverty set in post-war Mississipi, and focusing on the relationships between a relatively poor family of white farmers and their extremely poor black tenant-neighbours. It's a Netflix original, and rather well made, though nothing terribly innovative in terms of narrative or cinematography - does Netflix specify that its original-made content has to work on a range of devices?

It becomes generally harder to watch as it sinks from casual racism to the muderous kind, driven by the way in which the young returning ex-soldier son from the black family no longer properly knows his place in the white-dominated order; his 'crime' is compounded by the unlikely friendship he develops with the white farmer's returning brother, since neither of them can get over the undigested experience of the war and the death of comrades alongside them.

Worth watching, and what I thought was a good performance from Carey Mulligan as the farmer's wife - would be interested to hear from friends who know better how she did with the accent.

Watched at home on TV via Netflix on phone and Chromecast.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review of 'A Little Life'

A brilliant and terrible book which has haunted me for the last six weeks. Not at all the sort of thing I usually read - I'm more a person for genre fiction that provides me with a light and slightly dull escape in the evenings, rather than something that offers intense emotional catharsis. But I couldn't stop reading, in part because it's very well written, and also because it would have felt too much like cowardice and betrayal.

This starts of as a sort of multiple life story - four friends who had met at Harvard and their continuing lives threaded together. They are living cool lives in Manhattan and they are bourgeois-bohemian poor (a bit) but marked for success. Gradually it begins to focus on the life of one of the young men, who is a brilliant but damaged lawyer.

Most of the book is about how he got to be that damaged and how it plays out into his life and those of the others. It's very hard to read - lots of abuse, child-rape, unspeakable violence, self-harm, mental and physical disease. I'm glad I read it, and I appreciate what a superb work it is, but I am really relieved that it's over.

Review of Effie Gray

Standard period drama about the unhappy marriage (imdb calls it a love triangle, but there is nothing of the kind going on here) between John Ruskin and his wife Euphemia Gray. Written by and starring Emma Thompson, and her partner Greg Wise as Ruskin. A bit slow, a bit Merchant-Ivory when they get to Venice, and generally rather old-fashioned general period dramas have moved on a bit, but this look tired and made-for-TV.

Ruskin comes across as a damaged and nasty person who is under the thumb of his dominating parents, Effie is more or less a doormat who is suddenly empowered by the advice of Emma Thompson's character into seeking a scandalous annulment for impotence and non-consummation. Ruskin's suspected pedophilia is hinted at.

I thought it didn't entirely convey how important a cultural figure Ruskin was; his reactionary ideas about art and aesthetics really set the tone for the second half of the Victorian period and have arguably plagued Britain's sense of itself and its place in the world ever since.

Watched on BBC iPlayer, now built in to our new Samsung TV so no need to use Chromecast.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of 'Primer'

Watched this confusing film about start-up geeks who invent a time machine by mistake. I really didn't understand or follow it - not just the technology, but the plot. I managed fine with other time travel films, so I think the problem here was that the narrative hooks that are meant to show what is going on were absent; as with so much you don't realise how much work these do until they aren't there. Impressive that a film which looks OK could be made for so little money ($7k I think) and it would have been interesting to see whether a less complex plot and subject material could have made a more mainstream film for the same money.

Watched on our TV via Chomestream (on Linux PC) and Chromecast. That worked fine at least.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review of 'The Death of Stalin'

A well-made British 'comedy', with all of your favourite character actors, about the last days of Stalin and the aftermath. Ought to be required watching for anyone still a bit soppy about the USSR. Not many laughs, though the couple next to us seemed to find lots of it very funny; even the absurdities of the dictatorship and the bureaucracy can't be very funny against a background of so many juidicial and extra-judicial murders.

A few odd things; what seems to take a few days in the film (death of Stalin to fall of Beria) actually took a year. Almost no mention of anti-semitism, though of course it pervaded everything - even the references to the Doctors' Plot are without a mention of Jews, though that's what it was about.  And I didn't much like the depiction of Nikita Kruschev as a wise-cracking New Yorker - I much preferred the way Bob Hoskins played him in Enemy at the Gates, as a rather coarse USSR native.

But these are quibbles, and it's a really good film. Ruth and I couldn't help but think about our grandfathers who had so loved Stalin.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Review of 'The Other Side of Hope'

Pleasantly quirky and uplifiting film about a Syrian refugee who ends up in Helsinki. We see the wheels of bureaucracy preparing to deport him to a situation it deems safe even as the news reports the massacres, some Fascists who try to kill him, but also lots of nice ordinary decent Finns (and some desperate down-and-outs too) who rally to his support. It's a lot like Le Havre, but in Finland.

Some visual jokes, notably that though it's contemporary everything looks like it's in the 1950s or some other recent-history period. The restaurant where the refugee ends up working is stuck in a time-warp in terms of decor and cuisine (a reminder of the time when Finnish food was considered the worst in the world), the restaurant owner drives a 1950s car, and the truck driver who smuggles in the sister has a vintage mobile transportable from the early 1980s - which wouldn't even work now, the network on which it ran having long been closed down. Not entirely sure why any of this - I've noticed it in other Kaurismäki films, notably the noire Hamlet that we saw at the Sydney Film festival in the early 1990s, which was all Soviet-style plumbing and industrial locations.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via laptop and projector, having been obtained via informal distribution.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review of 'Weiner'

A rather sad political fly-on-the-wall documentary about the unsuccessful run for New York mayor of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner. Why people allow fly-on-the-wall documentaries I'll never understand; perhaps the answer is that although he's not too bad for an American politician, with decent enough views and policies, and a focus on the interests of what he calls the 'middle class' (by which he means the working class), he is still a narcissist. He can sit on the phone making call after call to rich friends and acquaintances, asking for money, without flinching. There are several Bulworth-type moments in the film, where he repeats the same speech over and over again, to camera or to an empty room, practicing. Normal people can't do that without being self-concious, but politicians can.

The thing about Weiner is that he's disgraced and fails because of a character flaw, and by the standards of American political life it's a small one. He 'sexts' pictures of his bulging underwear to a young woman that he's never met, and she senses the opportunity for celebrity and feeds him to the media. He didn't touch her, he didn't hurt anyone - they never even met, except online. He didn't embezzle, he didn't cheat on his wife, who by the way is a bigger political operator than him and close to Hillary. At one point in the film she's apparently faced with the choice of dumping him or losing her own political career, and it's not clear which way she is going to go.

Ultimately he's a big loser, the more so because his insight into his situation is lost in the face of innappropriately dogged resolution to go on no matter what. It's an over-used metaphor, but it is a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion. As the audience we know how this is going to go, but he can't or won't.

Watched via Chromestream and Chromecast, shortly before a Windows 10 update trashed my laptop.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Review of 'Paddington'

A very liberal film which makes much of Paddington's status as an immigrant...he's not really a refugee or an asylum seeker, but parallels are drawn between him and Mr Gruber's experience as a Kindertransport kid, and there's a lot about the need for people to be generous to the displaced and homeless. There's not much about what actually happens to people (or presumably bears) who enter the country illegally; the Brown family just adopts him, and that's that.

Pretty much every British comedy or character actor you can think of is in it, and seem to be having fun. There are lots of cinematic jokes and parodies of other films. I rather thought that Nicole Kidman as the wicked museum curator was reprising her role as Mrs Coulter in The Golden Compass, though she's not quite as menacing here.

Watched in two halves: in the Middle Floor at Springhill via legitimate iTunes download on someone else's laptop and the Springhill projector, and then at home via informally obtained download and Chromestream from my Linux laptop to the Chromecast in our TV. The second of these turned out to be much easier than the first - it took about 40 minutes to get the legitimate version working...first two DVDs didn't work in any of the available DVD players, and then there were issues with getting the mac laptop to talk to the projector.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review of 'The Corruption of Capitalism'

A bit of a disappointment, in that the ideas in the book are better than the book itself.  I've heard Guy Standing talking about the ideas on the radio, and he was very good. It rather feels like the publisher told him to make it longer, so he crow barred in some other stuff about how shit everything is - how the political system is broken, how platform capitalism is turning lots of people into pure labour-for-hire...I don't disagree with any of it, and he makes his points well with lots of examples; but it distracts from the main argument, which is about how 'free' markets are anything but.

Capital isn't interested in free markets or competition, and does everything it can to structure and seek out markets where competition is weak or non-existent - through licensed monopolies from the state and/or through patents and copyright. Indeed, I think too many people on the left believe the neo-Liberalism is about rolling back the state, as it pretends to be, when actually the state is crucial for assembling the markets (think the NHS or benefits system) so that they can be exploited, and for enforcing and protecting the monopolies.

There is also a sense in which the relentless barrage of numbers become a bit wearing - an infographic or two to break up the page might have been nice.

Overall this is a good and important book, buried inside a slightly less good one.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review of 'Blade Runner 2049'

Except not really a review, just a note about my personal impressions. Other people have done so much reviewing, and I think I couldn't do this properly unless I read all their reviews, and I don't have the time or the energy.

I quite liked it, or at least I quite liked the way it looked. It was a visual treat, and continued the combination of science fiction and noir that the first film pioneered. Others have said that the plot was flimsy, and I rather think the opposite - there was too much plot, including some elements that felt crowbarred in for the next sequel. I suspect the plot had holes or inconsistencies in it (like, either replicants can have children or they can't, but either way it's not a religious miracle, it's a designed-in feature that ought to be in the documentation), but again I can't be bothered to list or work them wasn't really about the plot. Some others have commented on Ryan Gosling's acting - not much too say here; he has one fewer expression than Harrison Ford, I'd say. I liked the performances of the other actors, particularly the women.

I noted a few bits of product placement...we had a corporate logo for Diageo, and Deckart is drinking Johnnie Walker whisky; Black Label, which presumably he's been drinking for thirty years while holed up in the decaying hotel in Vegas. And Sony, and some others.

Oh, and the baddie who makes the robots that go wrong is called Wallace - wouldn't it be great if this was a homage to the Wallace who hangs out with Gromit? He also made robots that went wrong, more than once.

I noted that the urban dystopia is now aligned to a rural dystopia - we see a truly horrendous 'farm' early on the film. Hating cities (except perhaps New York) is a mainstream trope of American cinema, and often nature and rurality is counterposed to this. Not here.

I also noted some cyrillic writing early on, and also an add that seemed to feature 'Product of CCCP' - has the USSR been revived by 2049? In any case this made me realise that for Americans, part of what was dystopian about the original Blade Runner was the presence of so many different nationalities in the future LA, especially Asians - Neo LA looks a lot like Neo-Tokyo. Well, by 2017 the presence of Russian script is further evidence that everything has gone to the dogs.

Finally, the ruined Vegas hotel where Deckart is hiding out looked a lot like some of the actual derelict hotels featured in some 'ruin porn' movies about Detroit.

Ultimately a good experience, though 'enjoyable' doesn't seem quite right.

Watched at the Vue Cinema in Stroud...worth doing for the volume and depth of the sound!

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review of 'Paterson'

A strong candidate for the most boring film I have ever seen. Very little happens. There are few 'quirky' touches but mainly it's just everyday life, work, breakfast, walking the not-very-nice dog. Everybody in the film is quite nice, from girlfriend who imagines herself to be talented and turns out to be quite talented, and co-workers, and guys down at the bar...

The central character is a bus-driver poet, quirkily called Paterson which is the same name as the town. We see him writing some poems, all of which seemed so awful to me that I thought his lack of talent was the point of the film...but it wasn't, they are actual poems written by an actual poet. The one good poem in the film, attributed to a little girl that the bus driver meets, was actually written by director Jim Jarmusch.

Watched at Landsdown film club in Stroud.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Review of Blade Runner (Final Cut)

I watched this again after a long interval in preparation for the new sequel. Surprised to find how little I remembered, though some of this may have been due to the fact that I'd previously watched a different 'cut' - at least that's what I kept telling myself as unfamiliar scenes unfolded, but I may have just forgotten.

The plot turned out to be much simpler than I remembered, despite the subtleties about androids who may not know that they are (possibly including Deckard himself), but I don't recall it being quite so violent. I later watched the 'deleted scenes' available on YouTube, and found that most of it was voiceover explaining what was going on to presumed dopier US cinema audiences.

Anyway, it was still enjoyable, though much slower than a comparable film would be nowadays. Made in 1982, the future still looks credible, despite the Prestel-like screens (no web in 1982) and phone booths. Very atmospheric, largely delivered via constant drizzle, a largely Asian Los Angeles and lots of derelict and deserted buildings, including some that look like they were straight from the actually-derelict Detroit.

Watched in the Midde Floor at Springhill via laptop and informal distribution.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of 'Y tu Mama Tambien'

An odd mixture of frat/fart movie and social-political this the way to get a political movie made in Mexico, or is it an attempt to add a layer of 'quality' content on to what's essentially a film about two teenage boys fucking their girlfriends, an older woman, and each other?

I'm not sure. Some of the bolted on social critique is heavy handed - the voice-overs that tell us how the poor family the boys encounter will have a dire future - but in other places it's done with a good deal of subtlety - the checkpoints on the road that the relatively affluent boys just cruise through but where poorer Mexicans are being given a hard time. And the illustration of the class differences between the boys, despite their friendship and common interests (fucking, drugs, and masturbation) is very well done.

One scene puzzled me...eventually the boys have a gay experience, when the older woman takes them both to bed and then sort of slips away. In the morning they awake to find themselves entwined and are shocked. Soon after their friendship ends. But is this homosexual dimension to their friendship hinted at in the scene in which they wank together from the diving board at a deserted luxurious swimming pool? I have read that teenage boys of all sexual orientations, not just gay ones, engage in collective wanking, but it never formed part of my experience.

Watched in the Common House at Springhill via laptop and cable to projector, having obtained the film via informal distribution.

Review of 'Carrie Pilby'

A film that turned out to be better than expected...about a young woman living alone in New York who is extremely intelligent (and a bit of a prig about other people's morals) and therefore finds life difficult and unhappy. Her therapist gives her tasks to complete (acquire a pet, etc) and she resists then complies, and so ends up engaging with life and people. Reconciliation with absent dad, closure on near-abusive episode with college professor, etc.

I note in passing that in this film, as in most others, that it depicts everyone living in apartments that they could only afford if they were millionaires. I also note that the lead, Bel Powley, reminds me very much of the way Alexandra Shulman looked when she was the flatmate of a friend at Sussex University in the late 1970s.

Watched via Netflix and Chromecast - the first almost good film I've watched on Netflix for ages.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review of 'Arrival'

A rather good science fiction movie, with most of the emphasis on plot and character rather than special effects. It's about the difficulties posed by first contact with a clearly superior species...and there is a time-travel/time-perception dimension to it that is really rather well done. Some of the early parts linger a bit on the military preparations, which are supposed to be tense but I found a bit slow, but this is more than made up for by an intellectual female lead who doesn't have to do some special 'female' version of clever - she is just cleverer than most of the male characters around her. Extra points too for an internationalist dimension (humans need to overcome their national differences to solve a big problem) and for acknowledging the value of expertise rather than celebrating some ordinary guy who just happens to...

And extra points too for at least mentioning, and even trying to explain, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which actually becomes an important plot element. Don't remember hearing about that since my undergraduate days, so hooray.

Watched on TV via Chromecast, having been obtained via informal distribution network.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of 'The Invention of the Land of Israel'

An interesting meander through some of the back alleys of Jewish, Zionist, and of course Palestine history. Of course it's political in content and intent, and Sand makes what seems to me to be a good case that the Zionist movement took the Jews' vague, spiritual and liturgical affinity for a distant land and turned it into a political instrument. I suspect that his selection of evidence (like everyone's) is partial, and that there will be pro-Zionist scholars who will point to other examples that appear to contradict his argument. I'm inclined to be convinced, so I find his argument persuasive and well documented; and his opposition to Zionism is nuanced and intelligent, and doesn't call for a return to some earlier day 'before the Zionist invasion'.

Nevertheless, as with his other book 'The Invention of the Jewish People', there are some things I didn't much like. Here I think he over-emphasises the ethical and humanist dimension of religious Jews' opposition to Zionism. Yes, the ultra-orthodox of various stripes were opposed to Zionism, just as they were opposed to emancipation and the ending of ghettos, and every other aspect of modern life. And they were opposed to a modern, political variant of Jewish nationalism, but they were most still believers in various ghastly ideas about Jewish superiority.

And I think his characterisation of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism could have been different. Apologists for Zionism are fond of saying that it's a nationalism like others, but it's always been a weird nationalism. I can't think of many other variants that were so uninterested in the folk-culture of the people which they intended to make into a national entity. In that sense perhaps Zionism's 'affinity' for an idealised 'ur-nation' of Hebrews as distinct from actually existing Jews is like the religious Jews' affinity for an idealised, spiritualized 'Land of Israel' that can be a focus of longing devoid of any geographical or practical reality.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Review of 'Man Up'

A surprisingly enjoyable rom-com, with lots of good British character actors. Some visual and physical comedy, and also great dialogue. Nothing special to look at but witty and fun, with nice details that confirm this is twenty-first century London. Simon Pegg acts and is involved with the production - not always a good sign, but this is one of his best. Rory Kinnear is great as the creepy old school friend, and Olivia Williams is good as the ex-wife too. A really good laugh, I thought.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via Chromecast.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of The Intern

A gentle comedy about...well, work, really. Robert de Niro plays retired Ben, whose life is meaningless without something useful to do, so he applies for and gets a role in Anne Hathaway's company, which has decided to advertise for senior interns (yes, seniors as interns) as a sort of community outreach thing. The film avoids the obvious jokes about old people not being able to understand technology or the new world of work - Ben is superbly adaptable - and instead mainly focuses on Anne Hathaway as the CEO neglecting her home life to pursue her business goals. Which, the film says, is more or less the right thing to do, because the business is her dream.

Quite fun to watch, and some nice jokes about the old guy giving the young dudes good advice about life, relationships and grooming. Not sure about the overall message, but it's only a film.

Watched on DVD at my mum's flat, my mother-in-law having burned it on to a disc from a TV showing. That's old school.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of 'Hidden Figures'

A nice anti-racist film, about three black women mathematicians who contributed to the space program despite all the obstacles put in their way. Very big on the patriotic dimension - so how it emphasises racism and sexism detracted from achieving the national objective of beating the Commies in space, and how the realisation of this gradually dawns on the buzzcut types running NASA. But very good on the little observations about how racism (and to a lesser extent sexism) are embodied in multiple experiences of everyday life, from segregated bathrooms and coffee pots to forms of address. Of course, black people know this already.

I rather thought Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) stole the show as the obnoxious,  condescending racist chief engineer Paul Stafford - perhaps because he is able to draw on all of the awkwardness and snarkiness of the Sheldon character.

Watched via Chromestream and Chromecast from my Ubuntu laptop - I think the first time that I made this work - having first obtained the film via an informal distribution network.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of 'The Duke of Burgundy'

A sad film about sex and sexuality. It's a story about two middle-aged lesbians, one of whom is  obsessed by sadomasochistic fantasies and requires the other to act out a highly specified script (literally, a script) of humiliation and degradation. The irony, which is the essential irony of all BDSM relationships, is that it's the submissive who is in control. The apparently dominant one just wants to wear warm, cozy flannel pyjamas and have a nice cuddle, but instead has to put on fantasy clothing (lots of expensive lingerie, credited in the film) and high heels to gratify the submissive one. The film illustrates this much better than any other discussion of the same point that I have seen.

They genuinely love each other, but the love is eaten up and destroyed by the 'submissive'partner's need to turn every act of intimacy into theatre. She more or less forces the 'dominant' partner to perform acts that she clearly finds horrible, including pissing in the other's mouth and locking her into a trunk at night. There is a strange, symbolic sub-text in that both the women, and many others in the neighbourhood, are lepidopterists, and there is a lot of footage of butterflies and moths. The Duke of Burgundy of the title is a butterfly.

The film looks beautiful, though not at all sexually arousing; it's filmed in Hungary, and the countryside is at once ravishing and unfamiliar. There are some weird  scenes in the local butterfly collectors institute (one of which features some panning shots where some members of the audience are manikins), and the credits include one for perfume.

Watched via Chromestream from my linux laptop and Chromecast, the film having been sourced from an informal distribution network.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review of 'The Big Sick'

Not as bad as Hadley Freeman made it out to be (I really didn't get those romance of the shiksa vibes that she detected in this), but not a brilliant film either. The first third seems hurried and badly edited, the middle third is strongly reminiscent of 'While You Were Sleeping', and the last third is mainstream rom-com breaking-up/making-up stuff.

One personal note, though. When the hero is leaving home to move to New York, near the end, he hugs his dad, and suddenly I had the most powerful recollection of hugging my own dad (who looked a bit like the dad in the film) and the way that he smelled, like I was actually smelling him. I've had a few more smell-recollections since, one of the smell of my dad's shop, which was mainly of Bakelite and old kinds of plastic. Go figure,  as they say.

Watched at the Everyman in Muswell Hill.

"Into the Unknown" at the Barbiican

I went to this exhibition. Some of the exhibits were a bit dull - some old books in glass cases. And quite a lot were editions that I'd actually owned at some point. Displays of old futures, on cigarette cards and advertisements and posters...the sort of thing that would be 'retro-futurist', except that at the time it was made it was just...futurist; it has to be knowing to be retro-futurist, doesn't it?

There were some physical objects...models of Jules Verne things like a Nautilus and a balloon, some maquettes and props from films, none of which really grabbed me, though I rather liked some of the things from eXistenZ, which I've always though was rather under-rated.

The best bit was really the screens displaying clips from films...the mainstream ones like 'Close Encounters' and 'Back to the Future' and 'The Day after Tomorrow', but also some that I'd never heard of, like Afronauts, and Pumzi, the Invisible Cities series...and High Rise and Dark City...and Astro Black. All of these looked really interesting, and some are short and available on YouTube or somewhere else online.

The last item in the exhibition is a showing of 'In the Future they ate from the finest porcelain'. This was striking, but left me feeling uncomfortable. It's a film by a Palestinian woman about archaeology and politics. It doesn't mention Israel or Palestine or Zionism, but it's clearly about the way that Israel uses archaeology as part of an ideological justification for the its version of essentialist Jewish nationalism. It's cleverly made, and beautiful to watch and listen to. But it does explicitly argue that the people it refers to as 'our rulers' have invented their own historic connection to the land, so as to deny that of the suffering indigenous people. There is a school of thought in Palestinian nationalism, and sometimes its supporters, that really does deny that there ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and so on.

And I think that's unnecessary, and offensive. I'm not an expert on the status of the archaeological evidence one way or another, but it strikes me as a stupid and destructive line of argument, like the dreary debates I remember as to whether Jews constituted a nation - in which Stalin's definition usually cropped up.

I'm quite sympathetic to Shlomo Sand's arguments that the 'Jewish People' and 'The Land of Israel' are historical constructions, as long it's understood that the Jewish people is 'invented' in the same sense that other peoples are. Similarly, it's one thing to refer to the Holocaust as part of the founding 'myth' of the State of Israel, and another to suggest that the Holocaust is a myth in the sense of not being part of actual history. The concept of 'fake news', somehow counterposed to 'real news', belongs here too.

There is a bigger issue here, which someone else is probably thinking about even now. Liberal and progressive intellectuals have spent years picking away at what we might think of as 'realist' epistemology, pointing out the way that all kinds of knowledge - science, history, medicine - are not simply revealed but are constructed. And we've ended up not with a population that engages critically and wisely with knowledge, but with Trump and Farage and Gove, and the climate change deniers...and the Moon landing deniers...Where does this go? It's not sustainable to say that non-realist epistemology is only for us clever people, and the rest have to just trust in the experts.

More to follow about this, I think.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of 'The Circle'

Not time well spent, this one. I really liked the book, which seemed to be a rather good satire on life at Google but also on the implications of social media for our civilisation. It came at a rather significant time for me; I read it just before I 'joined' Gartner, and the fictional culture of The Circle went some way towards preparing me for the highly metric-driven culture of my new employer.

But the film is a bit lame. In the book Mae's naivety is sort of picaresque, and sort of believable. In the film, seeing it performed by an actual human, it's not - she's too stupid to live, or at least to thrive as she does. Some of the elements that I most liked in the book (like the importance of her time away kayaking by herself, which is here turned into just a sucker's lesson about the value of 24-hour 'safety' surveillance) are not really included. And the denouement is different from the book, and it's ambiguous but not in a good way. Are we, the audience, still supposed to believe in the redeeming power of technology to make the world a better place, once it's in the right hands and the evil bad guys are exposed to the same transparency they want to impose on everyone else? I think we are.

Watched via Netflix and Chromecast. Can't remember the last time I watched a good film from Netflix.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Connected bikes shed new light on the smart city

Just over a year ago I wrote about See.Sensea Northern Ireland-based start-up making and selling smart connected bicycle lights. The lights were pretty cool in themselves (the cyclists in my family tried one) but the really clever thing was the way in which the company was planning to make use of the data from sensors in the lights, recognising that it was now in the urban data business.

I’m pleased to be able to say that the company is still progressing along this track. This week it announced two new trials with smart city programmes – one in Dublin, where it’s one of four smart cycling pilots rolled out in the run-up to the city’s hosting the global cycling congress Velo City in 2019, and one in Manchester, where the data is being delivered to the CityVerve smart city hub so that it can be accessed and exploited by the wider community of developers.

Both pilots involve the cities’ cycling communities, and both offer the See.Sense ICON light at a highly subsidised price in return for users agreeing to share their sensor data.

These are still early days. Various use cases are being discussed (including one of my favourites, using the lights to gather crowdsourced data on surface quality) but none have been definitively adopted. There’s no commercial model either, so no sign of how See.Sense might move towards a business that isn’t just based on hardware sales. But it’s promising, and a coupe of visible signs that the value of the company’s approach is being recognised more widely.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of 'The Zero Marginal Cost Society' by Jeremy Rifkin

An interesting book with occasional flashes of brilliance - or at least brilliant exposition. It covers much of the same ground as Paul Mason's Post-Capitalism and Kevin Carson's 'The  Homebrew Industrial Revolution' - but in a mode that's less explicitly political and more oriented towards a mainstream business/economics audience. I can't help thinking that in writing this he had one eye on MBA reading lists and future consulting opportunities.

Whereas Mason, and Carson in a different sort of way, appreciate that the tendency of capitalism to reduce the cost of making stuff is a contradiction that can be resolved in a number of ways (not all of them with happy endings), Rifkin treats it as an inevitable 'trend' that's inherent in the logic of technological advance, and more or less inevitably leads to a "sustainable cornucopia" (one of the chapter titles).

On the other hand Mason's analysis is situated within some esoteric debates within the history of Marxism that most normal people don't want to know about, and Carson links his very detailed and careful analysis within the context of 'freed market' anarchism and some equally questionable optimism about decentralised modes of political organising that seem to me to be already trashed by recent history.

Rifkin is a good clear writer, and his heart is in the right place. He knows that more stuff doesn't make us more happy, and that the quest for happiness through stuff is trashing the planet. Still, this seems oddly dated for a book published in 2014. There's no Uber, no Amazon Mechanical Turk, no Deliveroo - the whole idea of Platform Capitalism is unacknowledged even as a possibility.  Bitcoin gets one paragraph and the Blockchain not a mention; so he's soppy about community currencies, most of which have turned out to be disappointments, and the relationship between technology and hyper-capitalism is also not discussed. He's relentlessly upbeat about the sharing economy with no understanding of the potential for a dark side, and apparently no thoughts as to why mainstream corporations are so excited about the Internet of Things or their plans for 'servitization'.

And oddly nothing about the potential for surveillance or data harvesting...was there really no-one talking about that as recently as 2014?

This is definitely worth a read, but it needs to be read in conjunction with Peter Frase's Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, which sketches out alternative, less benign future scenarios. Perhaps also alongside "Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life", which is a sort of mirror-image dystopian version of the same developments, without much acknowledgement of the liberatory potential of the technology that is arriving.

Final thought; I can't help mentioning the irony that I read this book in a dead-tree version that would have cost me £17 if I hadn't borrowed it from a friend.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review of 'The Mummy'

Probably the worst film I have ever seen - a pointless remake that wastes some box-office names in a meaningless confused hotch-potch without a proper plot or even the most basic sense of geography. Lots of bangs and crashes, and life-sucking demons, but nothing coherent. Utter rubbish. Even Tom Cruise deserves better than this.

Watched in the 'Movie Lounge' of Cap Finisterre, a Brittany Ferries ship crossing from Bilbao to Portsmouth. I watched it because it  passed two hours that otherwise would have been spent looking at grey sea. As it turned out that would have been more enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Crowdfunding an arrangement for the Stroud Red Band

Hi All,

I would like the Stroud Red Band to have the song of the Jewish Partisans, 'Zog Nit Keynmol', in its repertoire. That means we need an arrangement for the particular set of instruments that we have in the band; the London Big Red Band has the same set of parts, so they will be able to use this arrangement too, and any other band that we make it available to.

We already had Di Shvue, a famous Yiddish socialist song, arranged for us, by a nice composer-arranger called Lewis Wolstanholme. We'd like to get him to do this arrangement, and he's going to charge £60 - so this is a very small crowdfunding exercise. If it works we can get some other tunes re-arranged for the band.

If a few friends of the band, or people interested in the history that the song represents, would kick in £5 we will be there in no time! Just go to this crowdfunding page and make a small donation.


Comrade Jezza

Review of 'A Bigger Splash'

A film about bored rich people (and obnoxious rich people, at that) doing nothing very much in beautiful locations, I ought to have hated it - but it was actually very good. Tilda Swinton (who I could watch reading the phone directory) is a rock start who has had vocal surgery and is resting on a beautiful island near Sicily, with her boyfriend who is a 'documentary film-maker', only he doesn't actually make any films...and along comes Harry, her former lover, with his recently discovered twenty-something daughter in tow. Harry moves straight into the villa and proceeds to be mind-numbingly vile to everyone, and this continues for three quarters of the film. It sounds awful, but it's so well done that it's impossible to stop watching. It's played out against the background of the first stage of the refugee crisis in the Meditterranean, so there is a counterpoint to the obnoxious rich people; and there is a plot development that is worth leaving as a surprise - I won't spoilt it here. But this film is definitely worth watching.

I watched on the TV via my PC and Chromecast, which I finally got to work from Ubuntu by downloading proper Chrome rather than the open-source Chromium alternative. I don't feel great about that, but all the other work-arounds didn't actually work.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of 'Istanbul'

A melancholy sort of autobiographical account of the city, interspersed with historical interludes but essentially the history of the author and what it felt to grow up in Istanbul in the 1950s and 1960s. Lots of engagement with the very mixed legacy of Turkish Republican Nationalism, in a way that few other Turkish people seem to want to do; as in 'Snow', he is not a religious fundamentalist but seems to have a certain sympathy for the people that are simple conservative Muslims. He wallows in the city's decay in a way that is a bit like ruin porn, but tied into a certain melancholy awareness that it has lots its role as the capital at the centre of the multinational, two-continents Ottoman empire. Bits of the book put me to sleep, but in other places it was utterly compelling.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of ' The Professor and the Madman'

I was a speccy, nerdy kid who spent his early childhood lunch-breaks reading from the dictionary, so I've always loved lexicography and etymology. I spent my first ever employee bonus on buying the CD-ROM of the OED...I still have it, though I assume the 3.5" floppy that contains the application is not much use any more.

This book is like a peek under the hood as to how dictionaries get made, with the additional bonus of a genuinely interesting human drama. Lots of period atmosphere, some of it of the implausible and unknowable detail kind; that would be fine as part of the scenario for a TV fact, this could make a really nice one.

Review of 'The Doomsday Vault'

This book is trash - or at least pulp - but in the best possible way. This is the most enjoyable steampunk novel, with giant steam-powered fighting robots, clockwork automatons, dirigibles...lots of fun. From time to time I began to suspect that there were just too many conceits in it (a 'clockwork plague' that turns most people into zombies but also creates geniuses who are responsible for a ferment of technological development. The plot is preposterous but in a good way, and I rather liked the two main characters. The reading equivalent of junk food, but a guilty pleasure - I will try not to read the others in the series, but I may well succumb.

Pleased to discover that the author is really called Steven Harper Piziks, and that he has a website. I may be forced to write to him.

Review of 'My Cousin Rachel'

Period drama, nicely made with lots of detail that looks well researched. I couldn't tell exactly when it was supposed to be set, which bothered me. There was a Christmas tree in one scene, which puts it some time after 1840, but there don't seem to be any railways - everyone travels by coach. So I guess that makes it the 1840s...?

Relatively faithful to the book, from what I can understand, though I am not sure how ambiguous the ending is in that - here I was still left wondering whether Rachel was, or was not, a murderer who is trying to poison the central male character. Very dark, but good. I must read the book.

Watched at the Vue in Stroud, where the air conditioning was one of the main benefits.

Review of 'Little Men'

A sad film about two boys growing up in Brooklyn whose families are thrown into contact, and then into conflict, because of a legacy - the shop in which one boy's mother runs her business, left to the other boy's family in the grandfather's will. The mother hasn't been paying a full commercial rent and can't afford to, the two families handle it badly, and the boys try to maintain their friendship in the face of this but ultimately fail. The saddest thing about it is that one boy is a marked introvert, and the other (more sociable) boy is the only person he's ever really been friends with - and in the film's epilogue he is shown as a rather sad and lonely character. So the widely held belief that in the end we get over break-ups and separations is shown to be false - the other boy really was special to him in a way that no-one else is ever going to be.

A really good film with a strong story and good characters.

Watched in the middle floor at Springhill via laptop and projector.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review of 'Eagle Huntress'

Well, everyone loved this, but I was a bit bored. Maybe I was tired, but I kept falling asleep so I missed bits. I didn't see where the girl who the film's about had to deal with the hostility evoked by her contesting an age-old tradition that only men could hunt with eagles. Actually most people in Mongolia seemed really supportive, though there were a few funny expressions on the faces of the grand old men of eagle hunting. There didn't seem to be any resistance at all to her participating in the eagle hunting contest, even though no women had ever participated before (maybe I missed that while I was asleep).

None of her fellow schoolgirls are at all interested in learning to hunt, so this is more a plucky individual triumph than a feminist film. The men in her family, and her mum, are all really supportive.

Lots of beautiful shots of the Altai mountains, with great aerial photography. But it is about hunting foxes...funny how the audience is all rooting for the girl and the eagle, rather than the fox, whereas if it was being hunted by hounds in the English countryside we'd all be on the side of the fox.

Watched at Lansdowne film club.

Review of 'Beauty and the Beast' (2017)

Pretty much a live action remake of the earlier Disney cartoon, with CGI used to provide the spellbound characters turned into household objects. A mild feminist message (Beauty likes to read books even though she's a girl) but other than that it's straightforward fairy tale romance. It's supposed to be pro-diversity in that there is a gay character, though he's more fay than gay - it's not exactly as if he is depicted having a same-sex relationship, he just talks and gestures in a 'gay' way. Also quite a few of the servants who have been enchanted into household objects turn out to have been black people when they are dis-enchanted back into servants, and that's obviously pro-diversity too; and Emma Thompson's teapot character speaks in a ghastly mockney accent, so that's a bit more diversity for you.

Still, it was mainly a sweet film, with some beautiful shots of the frozen enchanted castle, and some good scary wolves in the forest scenes. I also quite liked it when the villagers, whipped up by the evil Gaston, prepared to storm the Beast's castle, but of course they are turned back by the brave servants/household objects. Funny how we are never meant to identify with castle-stormers in movies.

 If anyone knows of any films where the peasants storming a castle are (a) the goodies and (b) successful then please let me know.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, obtained via informal distribution.