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.