Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review of 'Blockbuster'

There are quirky French films, and there is this. A guy is making short videos for his Dad who is dying from cancer, and he's making them about the development of his relationship with a young woman who he more or less picked up at random in order to make the films. Only, she finds out and then he realizes that he has come to love her and wants to get back with her. Lots of nice touches, including the really cool young woman who is the flatmate, and cameo roles by French actors and director Michel Gondry, the grand master of quirky French films (the woman has a thing for him).

I think it's very French that I only discovered at the end that the young man and his brother, and his Dad (who we see dying in the hospital) are Jewish. It's so understated that most people won't even notice - whereas in an American or British film, a character can't be Jewish unless that's a really important thing about them. (OK, George in 'Being Human' is an exception.)

Watched on Netflix...almost makes me not want to cancel it after all. Almost.

Review of 'Colossal'

I watched this all the way through - not at a single sitting - and am rather bemused by it. The plot is so silly that it has to be an allegory, but it wasn't immediately obvious what it was about. Anne Hathaway is a young and slightly frivolous woman with a drinking problem who is shoved out of her controlling boyfriend's apartment) and goes back to her home town, where she moves into her parents' apparently empty but rather beautiful town house and then hooks up with a guy she used to know from before she left. At the same time a giant lizard-humanoid begins to terrorize Seoul, and she soon realizes that she is the cause of this - every time she sets foot in a playground near the house the giant monster appears in Seoul, and every move she makes is mirrored by the monster.

See what I mean? At one level it's conventional rom-com/rom-dram territory; the guy she used to know turns out to be a bit disturbed and nasty, there's another guy she quite likes who seems to be attracted to her...but it's also this weird stuff that is barely explained, despite one scene close to the end that purports to be show why this is happening.

In the early hours of this morning I decided it was an allegory about alcoholism. A bar is the focus for much of the action. She has a drinking problem, and so does the guy who turns about to be nasty. He drunk-drives, and is violent when drunk. There is a lot about doing harm to innocent people as a result of unintentional actions, and a fairly heavy hint in the final scene. Perhaps the town the monster destroys is Seoul just for the play on words - 'soul'.

If anyone else watches this and can shed any more light, I'd be grateful, particularly if there are other visual clues in there that confirm my hypothesis.

Watched on Netflix.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review of 'Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World'

Art is really about money, and the people who buy contemporary art often don't know what they like or why they should like it. Who knew? Well, everybody really.

But this is a nice documentary about the contemporary art world, with insights into some very sharp practices that border on fraud. I didn't get as angry as I would have watching a similar documentary about say banks, because I can't help but think of this as 'victim-less' crime - or at least one where it's hard to feel much sympathy for the victims. But the interlocking worlds of private super-rich buyers and public institutions are such that we are all being ripped off.

Watched on Netflix, a rare decent film there.

My (old - 2013) review of Ulysses

Not sure there is any point in me writing yet another review of this - what will I add to the sum of human knowledge? But worth remarking that it was not as difficult as I expected, and I really enjoyed reading it most of the time. There was one rather dull section just before Nighttown, which I sort of skimmed. But the rest is brilliant. I was unprepared for how funny it is, or how modern the dirty bits seem - JJ was doing S+M before 'Fifty Shades' was ever thought of. In fact, Bloom's imagination touches on quite a few S+M themes, including cuckoldry, forced, crossdressing, transexuality, and whipping. Who knew? Was JJ into this sort of thing personally, and if not why did he write about it? Is it part of making Bloom some sort of universal victim character? Note that he also kisses his wife's ass, and that she fantasizes about him doing this in a more substantive way.

Also struck by how substantial JJ's knowledge of things Jewish is. Bloom is not just some sort of universal Jew, but a real living breathing Ashkenazi Hungarian with the bits of Jewish folk-culture and Zionism scattered about his head. At one point he sings the opening verse to the Hatikvah - not then the Israeli national anthem, obviously but a Zionist hymn. How did Joyce know about all this? Did he have Jewish friends? How representative is Bloom's luftmensch profession of what Dublin Jews did?

It's worth reading for the Nighttown section alone, which could almost be published as a stand-alone book or performed as a play (though staging would be a challenge).

Very pleased I read, sorry it took me so long to get round to this (nearly 40 years since I studied Joyce at A level) though I don't think I would have got it properly earlier. Some of the poignancy of Bloom's situation can't be understood without the experience of disappointment that goes with male middle age.

The final section Molly Bloom's soliloquy is brilliant though it takes a bit of patience to read pages and pages without punctuation I think it would be better to listen to than read maybe it should be done on the radio...

Monday, January 29, 2018

Review of 'The Good Night'

Felt a bit like a wasted opportunity - all-star cast, including Gwyneth Paltro, Penelope Cruz, Martin Freeman, Danny De Vito, Michael Gambon, Simon Pegg...but it's a film about dreaming, which film people seem to like (maybe it removes the necessity for their narratives to be consistent or to maintain proper continuity), though for everybody else there is nothing more boring than other people's dreams.

I sort of felt that there was something there that could have been developed in a better way - the artist coming to terms with not being great or successful, the relationship with a friend who is more successful, a fantasy about a woman who appears inaccessible because she only appears in dreams. It's really quite sad - the relationship that the artist has with his girlfriend is over but they both pretend it isn't, the dreamed-of woman turns out to be someone from a poster that is on the side of every bus (that is, not someone unique from his personal unconscious).

Watched via clever TV and Netflix...another not very good film from Netflix. Must get round to cancelling it.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review of 'The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921" by Eric Lee

I thought I knew most of what there was to know about the revolution and the Russian Civil War (especially after all the commemorative exhibitions this year), but much of what was covered in this book was new to me. Eric Lee has produced a compelling account of this little-known episode, setting it in the overall context of the divisions within the Socialist movement as a result of the first world war. He provides a lot of insight into the very different path that the Georgian Mensheviks took as a socialist party ruling over a country not at all ready for socialism. Much of it - especially the section on cooperatives - has a very contemporary feel, and I rather think that John McDonnell would benefit from reading some of the chapters.

It's hard to take seriously the suggestion that the kind of revolution brought by the Bolsheviks could be a model for socialists in a developed country, and apart from a few nutters I don't think anyone does any more. Even the brighter sorts within the mainstream Communist Parties (Gramsci comes to mind) had worked this out by the 1930s; that some of the very clever people in the Trotskyist groups don't acknowledge this is and think about how to move on is an interesting cultural and psychological phenomenon, but not very helpful in formulating an actual strategy to move beyond Capitalism. 

But while Eric Lee does explicate well the route chosen by the Georgian Mensheviks in a backward and isolated country,  I think he underplays the extent to which their side of the argument, and in particular the parties of the Second International, had been discredited by their support for their own governments' side in the war. The Mensheviks (the Martov Group excepted) wanted Russia to carry on fighting for the Allied cause, with all of the slaughter and personal tragedy that would have entailed. That alone made the Bolshevik victory more or less inevitable.

I can't agree, either, with the suggestion that because the Bolsheviks thought they could somehow skip a stage in the inevitable historical development from Feudalism through Capitalism to Socialism, that the 'patient' Menshevik approach made sense. The problem in Russia, and even more in Georgia, was that there was no capitalist class to speak of, and that the task of 'developing the productive forces' was going to have to be carried out under the direction of socialists. Quite how the Georgians were going to allow capitalism to develop naturally is beyond me.

But this is exactly the kind of interesting and intelligent debate that this book makes possible. A must for anyone interested in the history of socialism, or of the Caucasus. A book about the Dashnaks next, please?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review of 'The Promise'

Sad if conventional film (centred around a a love triangle, but with other characters and events too) about the Armenian Genocide during WW1. I'd been sort of aware of this, and even of some of the details (communities being marched into the desert to die), but it is striking how watching a film with identifiable characters actually makes it come alive and feel relevant. In other contexts some of what we see in the film would certainly be regarded as war crimes, but that just didn't happen after WW1.

There were some details of which I hadn't been aware, like the evacuation of Armenians from the Mediterranean coast by the French Navy. Which made me realise that I'm a bit confused about where Armenian communities lived in the Ottoman Empire - clearly not just in Caucasus region.

Watched on Amazon Prime video.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of 'Global crisis: war, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century' by Geoffrey Parker

I love reading 'big-picture' history books, and they don't come much bigger picture than this. He brings together conventional history (wars, revolts, etc.) with paleo-climatology, so there's lots of evidence about what the weather was like in the C17th. What it was mainly like was awful - cold, disturbed rainfall patterns (droughts and floods), short growing seasons - all leading to famine and thus to war.

At times the book feels over-long, especially in the middle. There really are a lot of blow by blow accounts of what happened in each of the places he includes in his studies - I didn't need a new narrative history of the English Civil Wars. But it's worth reading for the beginning and the end, which does bring it all together,,,and bring it back up to date with accounts of Katrina, Sandy and other more recent disasters.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review of 'Miss Sloane'

Like the lobbyist bits of 'House of Cards', with all the other bits taken out. Strong women characters who interact with each other about things other than their relationships with men, and a decent critical perspective both on the lobbying industry and on US politics. Nice acting, slightly odd camera work sometimes, as if it couldn't decide whether it wanted to look like a fly-on-the-wall documentary or not.

Long but not boring, and quite a few twists that I didn't see coming. I particularly liked the hacked cockroach, which we had been discussing at home a few days before.

Watched at home on clever TV with built-in Amazon video.

Review of 'Oscar and Lucinda'

Beautiful film, nice acting. Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett are great at conveying how odd the two main characters are, and I can't begin to describe all the meaning that is held in that thing that Fiennes does with his eyes.

I didn't mind that it simplified the plot - I think it still managed to convey, for example, the extent to which the 'benevolent' act of sending the glass church overland causes such death and destruction in its wake. 

But though I enjoyed it, I was cross that it messed about with the ending. The book's ending is much more poignant - the film has softened the edges of the personal tragedies involved, removed a key plot development (and invented a scene to make this possible - I'll avoid writing a spoiler, but it was painful to have this crowbarred in to the narrative), and also weakened the anti-clerical dimension - in the book Oscar ends up cursing the glass church, though not in the film. 

Watched at home via informal distribution, Chromestream and Chromecast.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review of Star Wars: the last Jedi

If only I could be convinced that this really was the last Jedi...but instead it's another action-packed but dull installment in the franchise that never ends. This is an evening I'm never going to get back. It wasn't particularly offensive...there was more than a gesture in the direction of ethnic diversity, and several strong women characters who talk to each other about things other than men. But it was mainly a collection of scenes of things crashing into each other and features of the landscape, together with many scenes of 'moderate violence' - that's people being shot or cut up by special weapons but without any blood or gore.

The 'rebel alliance' is no longer (if it ever was) about any sort of rebellion, the 'republic' is led by a princess, and the only difference between the good and bad side is that the latter seem to stand in very straight rows while the former stand around in looser groups. The baddies sometimes wear uniforms that suggest inter-war Poland, but both sides have their fair share of British accents (very confusing for those of us brought up on the tradition of it only being bad guys who sound British); later on both bad and good guy ground troop seem to be looking like US soldiers.

The overall look of the film isn't all that interesting...there is a casino which is sort of art deco themed, and where electro swing light plays in the background, but much of it looks like other Star War usual there is a scene on a narrow bridge over a deep shaft on a spaceship...doesn't the Empire have any safety regulations? The geography of the plot - and the plot as a whole - doesn't seem to make much sense, and there is increasing reliance on supernatural Jedi power to more it along. Admittedly I dozed off for a bit, but I didn't seem to miss much. That little sleep was probably the most enjoyable part of the evening.

I really must stop watching these.

Seen at the Everyman Muswell Hill, in some comfort in a near-empty cinema. I note in passing that the cinema offered me a discount for being over 50, which seems like an odd segmentation choice.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Review of My Happy Family

A Georgian film about a middle-aged woman who lives with her family in a small house (that's her mother and father, her husband, her grown-up son, grown-up daughter and boyfriend) and decides to move out and take a flat alone. The first scene is her being shown round the flat by the landlady, with some familiar 'I haven't got round to clearing out the last tenant's stuff' moments.

The decision to move out seems perfectly sensible - the mother is very controlling, the house very crowded (the family all keep their clothes in one wardrobe which is in the daughter's room, because it's too big to move anywhere else), and the husband very lacklustre - it took me quite a while to realise he was her husband because the relationship between them was so empty.

The film is sad and thoughtful, perhaps partly because the central character is an introvert in a society that doesn't seem to like them very much. She doesn't want to have people round for her birthday, but the family ignore her wishes and invite lots of people over for a big meal, which includes drinking and singing. A Georgian friend of mine has told me about the singing and toast-making culture of Georgia (every quaffing must be precluded with a speech) and it's clearly a real thing. The singing is beautiful - Georgians seem to fall naturally into four-part harmony, and to all know the tunes and the words to folk-songs.

In fact, Georgian society looks great. Tiblisi is not crowded or full of traffic. The neighborhoods she moves from, and too, are leafy and quiet, if a bit run down. The children in the schools are respectful (she's a secondary school teacher) and studious - there's no rowdiness that would be an inevitable part of the depiction of a school in a British or American film. There is a lot of community-ness (which gets on the nerves of the heroine) and the food they eat is all bought at the market and then cooked lovingly to make traditional recipes. Just goes to show that it's possible to be unhappy despite all this...

The film is very slow but nicely observed. I'll avoid spoiling the few actual developments that might be thought of as the plot.

Watched on Netflix.

Review of Theeb

A simple, beautiful, brutal film about beduins caught up in Britain's campaigns against the Ottoman Empire during WW1. A little boy tags along with his brother, guiding a British officer across the desert to a rendezvous with others who will help the officer blow up a section of the Hejaz railway. They run into other beduins who are bandits and the story turns into one of survival and revenge.

Stunning to look at (filmed in similar locations as the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia film, so lots of beautiful dunes and wadis) with great music. Most of the actors are beduins, not professionals, though the little boy was apparently the producer's son.

It made me look up some of the background about the railway itself, which proved more interesting than I thought. I also noticed that the Ottoman fort towards the end of the film had the red and white moon and star flag that modern Turkey uses, which I wrongly thought was introduced by Ataturk. Turns out the Ottomans used it too.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, on a DVD.

Review of Pitch Perfect 2

A while back I stumbled across Pitch Perfect (well, it was broadcast on live TV), and unexpectedly rather enjoyed it. The poster adverts on the side of buses for Pitch Perfect 3 reminded me that there had been a Pitch Perfect 2, so after a few slightly sad thoughtful films lately I wanted to watch something that was just entertaining and feelgood...and thought PP2 would fit the bill.

But it wasn't nearly as funny as the first film, despite a few amusing set-pieces and a nice running gag about the ultra-reactionary a capella singing show hosts. Well, at least I won't have to bother with PP3.