Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Review of 'The Player of Games' by Iain M Banks

Enjoyed this more than the first one in the series...more about The Culture and what fully automated luxury communism is like, artfully described by taking the protagonist to a different culture, and then commenting on the differences. Not so much space opera either, so more drama and personal elements, even if some of that happens between people and machines. 

Now looking forward to reading the next one.

Review of 'Essex Girls' by Sarah Perry

An essay in little-book form, and really enjoyable. I loved The Essex Serpent, and here we get a little bit of insight into Perry's hinterland - raised as some sort of strict and dowdy Protestant in gloomy flat Essex, with nothing at all of the unbridled licentious vulgar Essex Girl about her, and yet some sense of connection and kinship with the archetype of a woman who won't accept the definition of others. 

I'd have liked more dissection of the stereotype - after all, Essex Girls are essentially a working-class version of other kinds of irresponsible woman (like say 'Flappers'), and I think the class dimension is under-discussed here and elsewhere.

But it's an enjoyable read and a celebration of some forgotten but important women.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Review of 'The Prom'

Cheesy spoof of cheesy musicals, in which a group of washed-up actors from Broadway musicals decide to improve their image by finding a cause, and hit upon a young lesbian woman who is barred from attending her high school prom because she wants to take her same-sex partner. Lots of jokes about New Yorkers and the liberal elite not understanding 'ordinary people' - Meryl Streep's character has never heard of the diner chain Appleby's, which seems to occupy the same place in the US hospitality pantheon as say Harvester Inns in the UK, though the actually look a bit nicer in the film...was this product placement?

Lots of other product placement, but also some good jokes and big song numbers. Oddly it seems to be set in an America where there are no other social problems at all, in particular no race issues - the nice young lesbian woman's putative same-sex partner is African-American, and this is not even worth mentioning. The young men, and the young women, in the film, all hang out with each other across the racial divide. 

But was enjoyable to watch.

Watched on Netflix

Review of 'Venus'

It's not going to be easy for an English man in his 60s to review a film which is basically a series of intercut interviews by young Danish women talking about their sexual experiences. But a few observations nonetheless.

The film is not remotely erotic, though the young women are nice-looking. It's mainly interesting, though I did have a few little dozes...normal for man in his 60s watching a film from the sofa in the late afternoon, I'd say. 

For the most part sex seems to be more a source of misery than happiness for these women. They have very few orgasms compared to the number of times they have sex, or the number of sexual partners they have. They're concerned about what they ought to be doing, how they ought to be doing it, and what others will think. And these are women in Denmark, probably the best country in the world to be a woman. Of course they might be a selected group, even though they have selected themselves by answering an open call to attend filming - if they weren't miserable maybe they wouldn't have attended.

And towards the end the film-makers, who are lesbians even though the subjects mainy aren't, ask the women to undress and show their naked bodies to the camera...most of them do this, even though a few don't or keep mainly out of shot. Why? I can see what it added to the film, but I still think it would have stood better without this. 

As I watched I wondered what a film of young men talking about their sexuality would be like, and I suspect it would also be full of insecurity and awkwardness. Maybe sex, except between stable regular partners, is just miserable, or more miserable than happy?

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of 'The Happy Prince'


Really sad period-dress film about the last days of Oscar Wilde's life, when he is living in France, and looking back on his glory days when he was successful and celebrated. He's hardly abandoned - there are lots of people around him who love him and look after him, but he's still infatuated with 'Bosie' - Lord Arthur Douglas, portrayed as a vain, selfish and unsympathetic character, while also wondering whether his wife might yet be reconciled to him. There are some really upsetting scenes with boy prostitutes, and others in which he is spat on by members of his once-adoring public or chased through the streets by posh young men intending to assault him for his moral crimes. Well done, but not exactly enjoyable.

Watched on BBC iPlayer.

Review of 'The Shape of Water'

Unusual surreal fantasy drama-thriller...Sally Hawkins plays a cleaner at some sort of secure/secret military base, where a strange amphibian humanoid creature (obviously modelled on the Creature from The Black Lagoon) is used for experiments by ruthless and cruel secret agents and scientists. There's a good and complex plot involving Soviet agents, Sally's neighbour (she lives in a weird flat above a cinema), her African-American work-mate, and several other really good characters. Very much an art director's film, with lots of great sets and settings to evoke the period atmosphere. Some horrid violence, and some weird sex, if that bothers you. But great.

Watched on All 4.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Review of 'Consider Phlebas' by Iain M Banks

Finally got round to reading this - it's been on my Kindle for years. Meant to because I understood it was intellectual, political and progressive science fiction, including a depiction of a civilisation that really is fully automated luxury communism. I enjoyed it, though I was expecting more of the intellectual stuff during the narrative, and it mainly isn't - it's more space opera, with the back story squeezed into a series of epilogues and appendices. 

And I will read all the others, and probably enjoy them too, though perhaps with lowered expectations.

Review of 'The Cut Out Girl' by Bart Van Es

I really don't like reading Holocaust literature, but I took a chance on this because (a) Ruth had read it and recommended it and (b) I'd heard an extract on the radio.

A good decision, though it's not an easy read. It's cleverly structured so that the narrative shifts between the author finding out what happened to the Jewish girl that his family took in and hid during the war, and the story as seen through the girl's eyes, as remembered by her grown up self and reconstructed by the author. Hanging over the story is the knowledge that the girl survives but then, as an adult in the 1980s, falls out with the family so that the author grows up without having known about her; we don't find out until fairly late in the book what this was about.

Although I thought I didn't have much to learn about the Holocaust, and everyone knows about Anne Frank, and lots of people know about the 1941 February strike against the deportations of Jews from Amsterdam, there was lots that shocked me. I didn't know that more Jews died in the Netherlands than in any other Western European country, or that this was in part because the Dutch contracted out the round-ups of Jews to competing private agencies - few of the Jews were rounded up by occupying German forces. 

And I was really stunned, and upset, to read about what happened to those survivors who returned from the camps to their country, to find that they weren't welcome, that their houses were occupied and they couldn't get them back, that they were liable for taxes for the years that they spent in the camps...and that the Calvinist "resistance" organisation tried hard to prevent those Jewish children who had been hidden from being returned to their families, or where there were no survivors of the families to other Jews who wanted to adopt them. They argued that by putting their children into hiding the Jewish families and communities had given up any rights to them. 

Not an easy read - lots of the personal stuff that happens to the girl of the story is hard too - but worth it.

Review of 'Fierce'


Once again a bad film in which - somewhere - there is a good film struggling and failing to get out. Reality talent show program host is suckered into doing an episode from his home village (it's Poland) from which he got out early, leaving behind a young woman who bore his child. Now years later the child, now an implausibly gorgeous young woman herself though still at school, goes on the talent show just so that she can meet the father, but he's shallow and trashy and they don't really meet. But she turns out to be a superstar singer, and she goes from round to round until...

Made worse by the fact that it's dubbed into American English - I liked it better when she was singing, because that's still in Polish. When it's English it seems like every other implausible teen movie. Warsaw looks awful, though I think the film thinks it looks glitzy, all plate glass and neon. There is no sign of the beautifully reconstructed old town, though I caught sight of one Stalinist-era building that I remembered in the centre of town, now swathed in neon. By contrast the village that the characters keep describing as a shithole from which they want to escape is beautiful, with a stunning river next to it. I want to go there, and I wish I knew where it is.

Like I said, there's actually some good elements in there - the breakdown of families, the tawdriness and impermanence of fame, the impact of celebrity and social media on real life - and I'd like to see what another, more subtle director would make of it.

Watched on Netflix.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Review of "Shame"

Hard-to-watch but worthwhile film about a man who is a sex addict. He has a lot of sex - with prostitutes, with casual pick-ups, and at one point in a gay club, though he doesn't appear to have had any gay inclinations until that moment - he just seems to need to come all the time. He wanks in the shower, he wanks in the toilet at work, and his work laptop is filled with porn - something that might have given him a problem, except that his boss seems to be very protective of him and agrees that they can blame it on the intern.

At one point in the film he almost develops an actual relationship with a co-worker, but she's interested in something that might have a future...and at that point he suddenly can't get it up. 

And there's a catastrophic relationship going on with his equally damaged sister, who has moved into his apartment because she has nowhere else to go.

Like I said, hard to watch, but worth it.

Watched on All4 via phone and Chromecast.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Zionism: from both sides, now

From early on Zionism had two different aspects, and this is still important now. In Palestine it acted as a movement and an ideology of colonists, seeking to take over a territory and dominate the local inhabitants. But in Europe, where Jews were an oppressed minority, Zionism was a movement of nationalism (albeit an odd one) for an oppressed people, offering solidarity, cultural renewal, and self-help organisations. Now in Israel (and Palestine) Zionism acts as an ideology and set of institutions for Jewish supremacy - many Israelis say that Israel must be the state of the Jewish people of the world, not a state for all its citizens. But for Jews around the world, Zionism still means Jewish cultural identity, the national pride of a minority that’s not always oppressed but is often fearful.

For non-Jews, including anti-racists, it’s not always apparent how much Jewish identity has been subsumed into Zionism. Radical anti-Zionist Jews who have broken with the mainstream Jewish community, and its identification with Zionism and Israel, have found their own version of Jewish identity. But for most Jews in Britain identification with Israel is a very important aspect of their Jewish identity - even if they are privately unhappy or very unhappy about the government and some aspects of Israeli society. The idea of Israel as a refuge for future Jewish refugees still has a very strong hold. It’s bound up with the memory of all the Jews who didn’t manage to escape the Holocaust, and the memory of how migration to Palestine provided an exit route for those few who did escape or managed to survive the extermination.

I grew up Zionist. I went to a state-funded Jewish primary school that was run by a Zionist organisation. The Hebrew that I learned there was the Israeli kind - I didn’t even understand why older people pronounced Hebrew in a completely different way. The songs we sang were Israeli songs, in Hebrew. We celebrated Jewish holidays the way they did in Israel. There were maps of Israel and Israeli flags all over the school...I don’t think there was one British flag or map of Britain. Later on as a teenager I went to a Zionist youth movement, where we went camping, and got off with each other, and sung more Israeli songs and practiced living like a utopian community.

Eventually my politics took me away from most of this. I mainly look at Zionism through the eyes of its victims, although I can still connect with some of the emotional memories I have about Israel as a rescuer. I also know that some fascists and conspiracy-theorists use Zionist as a code-word for Jew, and sadly that some of my friends and comrades on the left can unconsciously slide into using antisemitic themes and imagery when they’re - rightly - calling attention to Israel’s crimes.

I’d like to persuade more British Jews to oppose the Israeli government and the Occupation, and to support equal rights for all citizens in Israel. I hope more people in Britain will stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, and will support their struggle against Israel. But I hope that it’s possible to do this in a way that doesn’t involve a frontal assault on the personal and cultural identity of Jewish people, and that means treating the issue of ‘Zionism’ with some nuance and sensitivity.

(Afternote: I wrote this as a comment on someone else's Facebook post, and then re-posted as stand-alone Facebook post of my own, and now I've put it here to give it a more permanent home. It was intended originally as a short response, and there are some aspects that deserve more substantiation or exploration. But it's here as it emerged, and I think I still stand by what's in it.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Review of "Manifesto: How a maverick entrepreneur took on British energy and won' by Dale Vince

Hard to live in Stroud without knowing about Dale Vince. We've been customers of Ecotricity for years, and we've been to hear him talk at Womad a few times. Sometimes we see hin in the local cafe, and he seems to radiate a 'don't talk to me' aura, not in a hostile way but like someone who'd like their privacy respected.

This book is really interesting - he reveals a lot of his personal history, with the Travellers Convoy and after. He's obviously a very focused person, with a really strong connection to practical things, but a good business sense too, and a powerful code of ethics. It's fascinating to read about the details of the company's relationships with other big businesses, and how absolutely awful they were.

I'd recommend this to anyone who wanted to know about the practicalities of the renewable energy industry.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Review of 'Private Life'

Thoughtful quiet film about a couple trying to have a child, or adopt one, and the strains this places on their relationship. Lots of dimensions, including the involvement of a niece who offers to be an egg donor. I liked the depiction of their relationship as neither idealised nor catastrophic...they have really bad patches and get angry with each other, and then they get over it...just like lots of people do in real life.

One small winge...they work as writers, they seem to have enough money for a quite-nice appartment in a NY district that's not yet gentrified (where is this?) but they don't actually seem to do any work, even though all the treatments that they try are really expensive. Sometimes they borrow money from their relatives, but they don't seem as poor as their working lives would seem to indicate.

Watched on Netflix.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Review of 'How to Thrive in The Digital Age' by Tom Chatfield

Surprisingly good book from 2012 about the effect of the life digital on the rest of our lives...particularly good in the earlier chapters on the impact on the way we experience time. Worth a read...the later chapters not so much.

Review of Pornocracy

Film about online porn, and mainly about Pornhub and the constellation of companies around it. It points out that the internet has more or less killed off the traditional porn industry of exploitative and nasty content producers, and replaced it with what is effectively a massive public pirate site - and no-one cares much about the property rights of the content producers, or the deteriorating pay and conditions of the people working in the industry, because hey it's porn.

But it doesn't really answer the question that it raises - how does Pornhub and its associated companies, which are massive and must have huge servers and pipes - make any money? The content is mainly free (and stolen), and the ads are mainly for other sites owned by the company. The subscriptions and the external ads don't seem able to cover the costs. 

One possibility that's raised but not really spelled out is that it's actually a massive money laundering operation. I tried to see if anyone else is alleging this, and can't really find anything substantial.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Review of 'Uncle Frank'

Amazon original movie in which a southerner who has moved to New York because he's gay (and now lives with a handsome and lovely Saudi gay lover) returns to his home town, because his hateful homophobic father has died and he is going to the funeral. He takes along with him a young female cousin who is a sort of protoge - he encouraged her to think for herself and she's ended up going to university in New York - and then the lover follows him, for not clearly explained reasons. It's mainly tragic and emotional but there are some good funny scenes too - overall quite a good film with nice acting and interesting characters...well, I thought so. Wonder what gay friends thought. Perhaps I will ask them.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Review of Hillybilly Elegy

A film in which a poor boy from the Hill Country of Kentucky triumphs over adversity through grit and character. It's about the poverty that rural white people face, though it's rather prettied up - the boy's mother is a drug addict who abuses prescription drugs and shoots up, but she still looks OK; she has all of her own teeth, her skin is Hollywood-grade, and so on. 

It's apparently true story, based on an autobiographical book, so it can't be dismissed as unrealistic...but it must surely be unrepresentative. It's kind of flattering and reassuring about American society; the boy joins the Marine Corps, serves in Iraq - but we don't see any of that, just the bit where he joins up and has his hair cut, and then he's out and at Yale Law School.

BTW the boy as a grown-up at Yale has a brown girlfriend (he's not a racist or any sort of bad...there are hardly any Black people in the film, apart from a few shoppers and some nurses in a hospital scene or two) but she's Indian, from India. Are Indians the right sort of brown people for liberal and not-so-liberal Americans? No legacy of race relations, they're not even Muslims...?

Watched on Netflix via Chromecast.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Review of 'The Life Ahead'

Slightly uneven but moving film about a Senegalese orphan refugee in the southern Italian town of Bari, who's taken in by former prostitute Rosa (played by Sophia Loren), and the relationship between them, and between the boy and other people in his social world - the drug dealer he works for, the other kids that Rosa looks after and their prostitute mothers. It manages to be not predictable in what might have been a moralizing tale...the drug dealer isn't a cartoon villain and the world he inhabits is full of proper humans, not evil predators. 

It's based on a book by Romain Gary (and apparently this is not the first film that's been made, and there was also a made-for-TV production and a stage musical). I'm not sure why it was important that the Rosa character was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor - is this an attempt to give some sort of gravitas to a subject that already has it in barrow-loads, or is there some subtle message about refugees now and then? I wasn't sure...maybe that's a good thing, because it might have been heavily messaged.

Watched on Netflix via smartphone and Chromecast.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Review of 'How to Stay Sane in an age of division' by Elif Shafak

A bit disappointed iwth this...it ought to be good, she's a brave person and (I think) a good writer. It's about not building walls between yourself and others, which is important though so very difficult.  It's so easy to believe that everyone thinks the same as we do, and to lose touch with how people outside our bubble are understanding the world and dealing with its troubles. Brexit, and Trump, and now some of the strange responses to the pandemic are evidence of this.

Of course she's a writer, not a political strategist, but I think she doesn't make enough of a distinction between reaching out to those people who are thinking differently to us, and making common cause with the people who are deliberately misleading them. There is a universe of difference between the working class people who voted for Brexit (or Trump) against their own interests, and people like Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings. We need to reach out to the former, and reaching out means actually listening and understanding their ideas, even if we might not agree with them. We need to stand together against the latter, because they are really nasty and have nasty plans for all of us.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Review of 'Whistling for the Elephants' by Sandi Toksvig


So glad this is over...not a long book but it felt long, and boring most of the time. It's billed as a 'gently comic novel', which I think means it's supposed to be funny but it's mostly not. Somewhere in there might be a half decent book, but it seems buried in lots of superfluous detail and ostentatiously 'quirky' characters. Lots of pages pass without anything happening, and then there are little flurries of narrative development where so much happens that it's easy to miss it...particularly if you've got bored and started to skim, as I did. I love Sandi Toksvig on the radio, but this is not her best work.

Una Mujer Fantastica

We're in Almodovar territory here, only somehow without the emotional intensity. Not sure why, it's not the story line or even the cinematography...maybe Almodovar gets more out of his actors, or just has better ones. This is a Chilean film, about youngish trans person in a relationship with a middle-aged man (he's left his wife and family and moved to a flat with the trans person), and then the man dies suddenly and the family come to reclaim both his property and his memory. The man's brother is sympathetic to the trans person, the rest of the family much less so. It's sensitive (and mainly the Chileans come across as sensitive and intelligent about the situation too), but there was something lacking, though I can't exactly say what.

Watched via nformal distribution and laptop.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Review of 'My name is Joe'

A painful but well-crafted Ken Loach film about the relationship between a recovering-alcoholic and a health visitor in Glasgow, with the former running a community football team for other vulnerable and impoverished adults, and teetering on the brink of a world of drug dealers and organised crime.

Watched on All4...slightly miffed that Channel 4 charges us money to have the ad-free version, and then shows us ads anyway, saying this is 'for contractual reasons'. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Review of 'The Secret Garden'

Really terrible 'steampunk' version of the children's classic, with ghastly dialogue and awful acting. Some nice costumes and sets, but even those don't really represent a consistent look. Sometimes I wish for an "art director's cut" of a film, which would be a sort of extended trailer of about 15-20 minutes, so that you could have all the fun of the look without having to engage with the dreariness of the plot or the dialogue; but 15 minutes of this would be much too long. Avoid at all costs.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Review of 'Grief is the Thing With Feathers'

This is a beautiful, clever book about bereavement. I loved Max Porter's second book but it's amazing to think that this is his first - it's brilliant. A plot summary doesn't do it justice - a man grieving for his recently dead wife is consoled by a crow that comes to live with him as he struggles to parent his two boys; like I said, this doesn't do it justice. There's a backstory about Ted Hughes and the way in which Eng. Lit. people have divided into pro-Ted and pro-Sylvia Plath people - I don't really get all of that, though it's well depicted. But this was very good - just read it. It's very little as well, it won't take more than an hour, but it'll be an hour that you won't regret.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Review of Spotlight

Film about the Catholic Church's cover-up of paedophile priests and the eventual exposure in the Boston Globe...oddly flat and disjointed, and seeming to miss every opportunity for tension or drama. Even the bad guys aren't very bad - in so far as they are even visible. No flashbacks to the events that are being investigated. Just lots of shots of offices - lawyers' offices, newspaper offices, court archive offices...No-one seems to warn the journalists or the editor off from publishing the story, or any of the usual liberal media drama plot points.

Watched via laptop and informal distribution.

Review of The Personal History of David Copperfield

I really couldn't see the point of this - literally a pointless remake. I appreciate the point about the 'colourblind' casting, which was nice, but other than that it felt like a cartoonish romp through the Dickens story without much time for any kind of character or plot development. I guess the fabulous cast might have had fun making it, but what a waste of talent and money.

Amazon Prime.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Review of "This Land: The Story of a Movement" by Owen Jones

Owen Jones's take on the Corbyn years, and it makes for grim reading. I'm one of those who rejoined the Labour Party after many years outside, inspired by the fact of a leader who seemed to care about the same things that I did and inhabit the same moral universe as me. At the December election I stood on a cold and wet night in a park in west London, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, listening to Owen Jones rousing a crowd of young people to go out and canvas in what was a key marginal. He was great, and we went and knocked on doors with renewed enthusiasm.

I now know that as we speaking Jones was actually deeply disillusioned about Corbyn - about his lack of leadership and managerial skills, his personality defects, and his failure to develop or even require a political strategy for the 2019 election. The team around him had been chosen for loyalty rather than competence, and the most competent individuals were unable to make a difference in a toxic and dysfunctional organisational culture. Even a team of geniuses would have had trouble leading Labour in the context of the Brexit election, and this was not such a team.

There's a chapter on the antisemitism story that is mainly good, though I think it understates the extent to which the Labour Right, and actual Zionists of various stripes, set out to pin the anti-Jewish label on Corbyn  - whatever the consequences for Jews in Britain. Some were concerned that Corbyn really was anti-Zionist and thought that they were standing up for Israel, others couldn't care much about Israel but saw an opportunity to undermine the left. Of course this doesn't mean that all accusations about antisemitism were a smear, but some of them definitely were.

It's nice that Jones finishes the book with a reminder about why Corbyn was an inspiration despite his personal and organisational failings. One of my take-aways is that the left needs to understand that not all of our opponents within the Labour movement are the same - there are actual neoliberals, but there are others who are just pessimistic social democrats. These latter represent a real constituency, unlike the neoliberals, who just represent themselves and capital, and we do need to find ways of working with them and winning them over. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review of "Been So Long"

Musical (yeah, people really do burst in to songs and dance routines) about youngish people in London and their troubles, starring Michaela Coel as a youngish single mum with a disabled daughter - who meets a nice young man who's just come out of prison and is living at home with him mum and wears an electronic tag anklet. Lots of nice sympathetic characters, enough drama but not too much melodrama, some laughs. No memorable songs but you can't have everything.

Watched in two halves - first on Film4 as transmitted, and then the following night on All4 (via smartphone and chromecast) to avoid the huge ad breaks on Film4.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Review of 'The Trial of the Chicago Seven'

Nice political film about the trial that resulted from the demonstrations outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago. Although it's mainly a courtroom drama there's lots of footage of the events in Chicago themselves - some real footage and some re-staged. Some of that - especially the 'police riot' - is hard to watch, because it's very violent, and there's a particularly nasty assault by counter-protestors on a woman demonstrator. 

Nice to see British actors playing Americans for a change, and to see Sacha Baron Cohen in a quite serious role. The accents seemed to me to slip once or twice, but not seriously, and it didn't spoil the film. Mark Rylance is especially good as the defense lawyer. 

It made me want to go and read Bobby Seale's book "Seize the Time", which has sat unread on my shelf for forty years; and also to re-read David Zane Mairowitz's "The Radical Soap Opera", and to listen to this podcast.

Some take-aways for me, having spent some of the last two years on the periphery of the XR street protest movement, is how little our side actually learns from the past. The demonstators mainly set out to be non-violent, but it didn't seem to me that they had much of a plan for what would happen when the other side, the Police and the National Guard, turned violent. 

They got some good sympathetic coverage from the TV networks (rather better than protestors get now, I'd say), but it was a miracle no-one was killed; what's more, it does seem that despite the coverage they didn't win people over to their side. They chanted "The Whole World is Watching", which was true, but the world saw what it wanted to see and turned out to have a short attention span.

Watched on Netflix.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Review of 'Pain and Glory'

Almodovar's latest. Slightly less complex story line, but I still needed to go over it afterwards to make sure I had everything sorted - there's a play within the film, and lots of flashbacks and memories, some of which turn about to be shots from a film rather than actual memories - or do they? That's a clever way to reflect on the nature of memory, which feels like film clips but isn't.

Penelope Cruz as the younger version of the male lead's mum is great (and less glamorous than usual).

Lots about heroin addiction that feels sensible rather than sensationalising...the doctor who is treating the main character for chronic pain in just about everything is sensible too...Almodovar may have it in for a lot of institutions but medicine always seems to come out well in his films.

Watched via laptop and informal distribution.

Review of 'My Octopus Teacher'

Nice gentle, beautiful film about a South African film maker and diver, suffering from burn-out, who finds redemption by diving in a kelp forest and observing an octopus. There's a bit of anthropomorphism, but not much...I'm not usually one for nature films or animal films, but this was special, with a lot of really interesting stuff about the octopus, and beautiful photography and music. There was quite a lot of shark stuff (the natural predator for the common octopus in these waters is the wonderfully-named pyjama shark) and these got a rather good backing track that was just reminiscent enough of the 'Jaws' theme without being cheesy.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Review of "Girl, Balancing" by Helen Dunmore

A posthumous collection of short stories, every one of which is evocative and beautiful, and most of which feel like that they were the germ of a much longer piece...perhaps a novel that was never written. One or two were more than a little disturbing. I found that I couldn't read more than one at a time, or it felt like over-indulgence. I loved this and it makes me want to read more of her books.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Review of "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" by Edward Kritzler

Something of a disappointment...turns out there weren't all that many Jewish pirates, and not really enough to fill a whole book. This might have made quite a good magazine article, but it's padded out with a lot of background about Spanish Jews and crypto-Jews, the expulsion, the Inquisition in the Old World and the New, Columbus and his voyages, and so on. There are really only a few Jewish pirates, plus a few merchants who financed other pirates. Felt a bit of a struggle to finish this; I'd started reading it because of the pirate chapter in The Many-Headed Hydra, which is a much better book. Occasionally I found references to Jewish history that didn't seem to be quite right, which made me wonder about some of the other stuff that I was less familiar with.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Review of Bait

A remarkable independent micro-budget film, which touches on issues of class and power, and culture, and masculinity...it's black and white, shot on tiny old-fashioned 16mm cameras with sound entirely dubbed on in post-production. The dialogue is terse and monosyllabic, the images very dark and stark. 

It's set in a Cornish village over-run with second-home owners. The main character, Martin, has together with his estranged brother sold the family home to a fairly awful family like that, who come down from London with bags of stuff from Waitrose so that they can have the food that they need. Martin is a fisherman but he no longer has a boat, and he does the best he can to fish from the beach with an anchored net. There's lots of footage of dark and rusty fittings. His brother, Stephen, still has a boat, but he doesn't fish - he takes tourists for little trips, and also takes out anglers - so they fish but he doesn't.

Not having a boat makes Martin less of a man, and not using his boat for fishing makes Stephen less of a man, especially in Martin's eyes. I was struck by how many penises there are in the film - one of the trippers on Stephen's boat wears an inflatable penis costume, and another wears a plastic false nose-and-glasses thing that's shaped like penis, and is later left behind on the boat with the other trash. 

Martin leaves fish wrapped in plastic bags on the doors of houses in his street - I think they belong to his mother and his ex, though I'm not sure. Hunting - for fish, or anything, is an intensely male occupation, and the inability of the Cornish men to fish and make a living from fishing is a sign that they have been emasculated. Another man has given up fishing to make a living from driving a taxi. Martin jokes bitterly that all the fishing paraphernalia with which the incoming-family have decorated what was his family home - all the ropes and chains that they've hung on the walls - makes it look like a sex dungeon.

Afterwards I couldn't help thinking about the surly, poor, hopeless Cornish people and how they came to be that way. The fish they catch still have value, to retailers and to the pub where they are made into meals for the incomers, but they don't provide a sustainable income to the fishermen and their families. They're screwed by regional economic inequality (their homes are too cheap compared to the cost of homes in London), the monopoly power of supermarkets - the sellers of fish are fragmented and in competition with each other, but the wholesale buyers have monopoly power that no government is willing to address. They're undermined by technology (other fishing fleets that hoover up everything in the fishing grounds cheaper than they can with their little labour-intensive boats) and by geopolitics, because no government is going to stand up to protect British fishing grounds from incoming fleets, not when their are other industries that are more important.

Review of 28 Days

A rehab film...Sandra Bullock is an alcoholic having lots of fun getting smashed (and sometimes smashing things) together with her fun-loving boyfriend, but it all goes horribly wrong at her sister's wedding and she ends up sentenced to rehab in lieu of a jail sentence. It's actually quite an enjoyable film, with good characters and enough humour for it not to be a downer, but serious enough to not trivialize.

Watched on Netflix.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Review of Enola Holmes

A fun, sweet kids movie about Sherlock Holmes's younger feisty sister, who is brought up alone by her mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) to be an independent thinker with martial arts skills. It's set in a sort of cod-Victorian "olden days" - I don't think the film-makers were very concerned about historical accuracy, but it was enjoyable to watch. There's an early Benz automobile in it (first made in 1885), but one of the characters' father dies while the uncle is away in the Afghan War (1878) so I don't think the chronologies quite work out. Well, who cares?

Whalebone corsets, proto-suffragette bomb-making feminists, evil aristocrats and all that make up for it, no?

Watched on Netflix.

Review of Juliet, Naked

Sort of a romcom about fandom, which started out a bit slow and dull but gradually got better. Chris O'Dowd plays a lecturer obsessed with an American rock star who's disappeared, and spends his time in forums discussing his work. Rose Byrne plays his girlfriend who doesn't really get the obsession, idly posts in the forum, and thus makes contact with the missing rock star, who is now washed up with multiple children from different relationships...it turns into quite a good film about seeing people at their worst (getting the disappointment in first) and the ironies of fandom...O'Dowd "understands" the singer's work better than he understands it himself, and lays claim to being the more profound interpreter...a view that I think I agree with. Post-structuralism in a romcom, eh?

Watched on Netflix.

Review of The Best of Enemies

Disappointing biopic about C P Ellis, the Klansman who went over to the good guys. I first read his story in 1976, in an oral history collection by Studs Terkel - I just picked up the book in the university bookshop while I was killing time between lectures. I read that story, bought the book, and it's stayed with me ever since...I don't remember any of the other stories in the book.

I only just learned that there was a fuller account of Ellis's tranformation in another book, and that this had been made in to a film. 

But it was a disappointment - hard to depict this kind of transformation without a great deal of cinematic skill, and this is mainly plodding. Mainly the Ellis character does a lot of staring in to the middle distance. His transformation is sudden and unexpected. 

The KKK are not very scary (unlike the ones in Black Klansman). The film leaves out the role of the AFL-CIO in initiating the charette that's aimed at reconciling the two communities; in fact, the depiction of the way that the process is proposed is confusing to me. It doesn't depict Ellis's reaction to the Gospel music that was sung at the close of sessions (he joined in). For the most part it leaves out the class issues - Ellis's transformation was driven by a good old-fashioned recognition that the town's poor whites and blacks came from the same class. Ellis's wife and daughter are depicted in the film as instinctive anti-racists who lead and then support his transformation, not something that seems to have been actually part of his experience.

Glad that it was made, but it wasn't all that great. Watched via laptop, cable, and informal distribution.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Review of La mala educaciĆ³n (Bad Education)

Another Almodovar film in the Jane season, and they do keep getting better. This one has all the Almodovar tropes (junkie transexual prostitutes, mad old aunts, horrid priests) but woven into a complex and compelling narrative. In fact there are multiple layered narratives going on - I counted at least four levels of stories within stories, but it's five if you include the few minutes of a film with nuns that the characters watch.

I won't attempt to summarize the plot, partly because it's hard, and partly because it's hard to do much without spoiling, but it does involve sexual abuse by priests - very topical when the film was released in 2004, because the Boston Globe investigation that triggered so much attention was in 2002.

We watched this outside in Jane's back yard on a freezing night, wrapped up in blankets and warm clothes, and with hot water bottles. Even so it was very cold, but the film was so gripping that no-one thought about leaving. Not sure how we can manage many more though until it warms up a bit.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review of 'The Many Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic' by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker

I really enjoyed this book - intellectual and social history, with lots of the best kind of political analysis but rarely inaccessible in its language. Lots that I sort of knew about...the Diggers, the Maroons, the revolution in Haiti (well, I've only recently read The Black Jacobins, and I grew up on The Kingdom of This World and also a novel about Henri Christophe that I think must have been Black Fire), but also lots that I knew much less about - the antislavery of the radicals in the English Revolution, the multi-racial solidarity of sailors in England and North America, antinomianism (I had to look that up).  I didn't know about the image of the hydra as a ruling-class metaphor for resistance, or of the extent to which Hercules is a symbol of ruling-class power. I knew a bit about the democratic culture of piracy, but I loved reading about it in such detail, and it's inspired me to read a bit more.

Inspiring and a reminder about why it's important to do History, and why struggles over memory are so important. I have mixed feelings about pulling down statues and renaming streets...I think that we if we erase the colonial past then what chance do we have of contesting the way it's remembered? But why isn't there a statue to the fabulous Edward and Catherine Despard, about whom much more should be widely known? Or at least a few streets or pubs named after them? Small afternote: there is a pub named after Charlotte Despard, who was pretty amazing but no relation of the other Despards.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Review of 'Dean Spanley'

A rather slow period comedy-drama that ends up being quite interesting, though I can't really say why without spoiling it. Good actors, nicely shot and staged (and it does feel a bit stagey and could probably be done as a play), with lots of period details. There's a reincarnation theme, something about loss and mourning, and quite a bit about dogs. If you are interested in any of those then it's worth the time.

Watched on Amazon Prime via Chromecast and smartphone.

Review of 'The Notebook'

Mainly slushy period-set love story about a young man from a poor background and a young woman from an affluent family who fall in love despite their tempestous and conflicted relationship and...

This is mainly slushy and over-sweet, though there's a split narrative past/present thing going on, in which the future old version of the young woman has dementia and only dimly recognizes the history as her own which is almost interesting. It's mainly a romanticised and implausible version of America, particularly the deep South where it's mainly set, in which most of the bad things - especially the racism - are taken out.

Ryan Gosling in it. Sometimes he's in good films, but this isn't one of them.

Watched on BBC iPlayer.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Review of 'As Ants to the Gods' by Alex Burcher

I really enjoyed this work of alternate history, which imagines the seventeenth-century world if the Moors had been victorious at the battle of Tours and gone on to conquer western Europe. It’s mainly a much more civilised, tolerant and educated world, though there are some jarring exceptions - amputation, branding and floggings as punishments for crimes, for example.

It’s got a complex and interesting plot, lots of alt-history detail (though I’m not keen on the device of a counterfactual within the counterfactual, which so many alt-history writers can’t seem to resist), including intellectual disputes within Islam (or rather the near-Islam of the book), not one but two secret conspiracies struggling for domination, and a thriving Norse civilisation in Europe and North America.

Some of the descriptions of violence were a bit graphic for my tastes - I know these things happen, especially in wartime, but I’m not convinced I need to know about every slash and bone-crush. But I liked the other details, and I liked the main character and quite a few of the others, including the Pepys-like diarist who befriends the hero’s family. I cared about what happened to them, and was emotionally involved with their stories - something that doesn’t always happen with alt-history. I look forward to reading more by this author.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Review of "Molly's Game"

Surprisingly good film about high-stakes poker...in the middle I lost it a bit, because everyone and everything (even the interior decoration, which that dark and gloomy stuff that Americans seem to think constitutes class) was so horrible. But we stayed with it, and it was worth it. The eponymous Molly is a driven young woman with dad issues, who falls into running poker games, and becomes illegal when she starts taking a portion of the pot to cover the debts that she's getting into, apparently because she is letting the high rollers play on credit. And then there's the Russian mob, and the proper Italian mob...

Nice to see Kevin Costner in a decent film and role (as the psychologist pushy dad) for once.

Watched on BBC iPlayer

Review of 'Talk to Her'


Another one in Jane's Almodovar season, and they keep getting better and better...and now I understand why it was worth bothering with all the bad ones at the beginning, because it's a pleasure to see a talent emerge...and also because some of the people that were there in the beginning are still with him as he matures.

This is a beautiful, clever, well-crafted film about two men with women partners in comas, and the bond it creates between them. One of the women is a dancer (and it's fair to say that the man is not her partner except in him imagination), and the other is a bullfighter, so there are some hard-to-watch bullfighting scenes. Hard to say more without spoilers, but it's really good and worth watching.

By 2002 when this is made Spain has changed from the repressive, repressed, religious society of the early films into a much more modern and liberal place. I note in passing that when one of the men visits the other in prison it seems more liberal, and decent, than any prison in the UK would be.

Watched in the round house at Days Cottage, on mac laptop and projector, having been obtained from informal distribution.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Review of 'Dirt Road to Lafayette'

Nice film about a young man and his dad visiting relatives who migrated from Scotland to the southern US a long time ago. The mother of the family, and the boy's older sister, have both died from a hereditary disease (unspecified) and the relationship between the dad and boy is very strained.  On their journey to meet the relatives they get stuck in a mainly-Black southern town, and the boy wanders off and hears some music playing...and then he joins in on a borrowed accordion, and we see him smile for the first time. 

It's a film about redemption through playing music, particularly Zydeco. Weirdly, that's supposed to the theme of a German film that we watched recently, in which the promised redemption never happens. Hear, though, it does, and it's a real pleasure to watch this transcending racial, class and other divisions.

There's lots to like, including the acting and the music. The film doesn't hide the racism of the country, but it rather makes it look like Cajun/Zydeco music is one aspect of the US that appears to be genuinely integrated, at the level of the bands and the audience. It's great the way that it manages to both illustrate and distance itself from the religious weirdness that Americans take for granted, and most Europeans don't get any more - without being heavy-handed.

Based on a book by James Kelman, which I will try to read, and apparently there's no poster for the film, which is a first for me.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via smartphone and Chromecast.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Review of Radioactive


A biopic of Marie Curie that I quite liked, though the reviews are all terrible. Nice to Rosamund Pike playing against type as an older woman who's not a romantic character, and I quite liked the occasional bits of weirdness (dream sequences and the like) in the narrative. Some of the flash-forwards to show how radioactive worked out for everyone (the atom bomb, radiotherapy) seemed a bit laboured, but I was quite satisfied with the film, including the dialogue (which some critics hated) and the settings.

Watched on Amazon Prime via Chromecast and tablet.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Review of Waking Ned

One of those films in which a whole village conspires to deceive an outsider (it reminded me of The Grand Seduction) - in this case the man from the lottery, because the bloke who has won the six million pound jackpot has died with the winning ticket in his hand, and the two men who find him decide that one of them will impersonate the deceased so as to claim the winnings. It's mainly comic, despite the death thing, and nicely done, with lots of good village-life detail. Not too long, nice music and stunning landscapes.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Review of "All About My Mother"


Another Almodovar film (part of the Jane Opher program), and another good one - he's obviously hit his stride by now. This one has everything that you expect from Almodovar - junkies, prostitutes, transexuals - but now they are proper characters in a proper film with a plot. Curiously this one starts with the same plot device as "The Flower of My Secret" - a woman faced with the death of her son who has to deal with the transplant doctors' request for his organs, and as in that film, it turns out to be a training video that she's making. Only this time the woman, who is a transplant nurse, then does lose her son almost immediately afterwards in an unpredictable car accident, and then has to deal with the same situation for real. 

Hard to convey the plot without giving too much away (in fact I have already spoiled the car accident death thing, haven't I?) but it's complex, and on the boundary of plausibility, but gripping and full of pathos.

Watched at Days Cottage in a beautiful roundhouse yurt, on Jane's laptop and projector, the film having been obtained by informal distribution.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Review of 'Flights' by Olga Torkarczuk


Oh my...an unusual, amazingly different sort of book...one of the weirdest and most 'modern' that I've ever read. It's described on the back as 'a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy', but it's not a novel in the sense that I was expecting or (I think) most people would understand. There aren't characters, there isn't a plot or even a continuous narrative. It's a series of fragments with different narrators. Sometimes they are like substantial short stories with engaging characters and situations, and some of these resolve and some don't. Some are only a few sentences long. Some re-appear through the book, and some don't.

There's an anatomical theme, but it's as much about anatomists - and how the discipline and its skills developed - as it as about the subject matter. There's a travel theme, but it's mainly not about the places we go but how it feels to travel, to be dislocated and in the liminal places that are involved in the process of travelling...airports, departure lounges, the tunnel on to the aeroplane, and so on.

I absolutely hated this book for the first 150 pages, and that would normally be quite enough for me to give up, content that I'd have given it a fair go. But it was for a book group so I ploughed on, which was a good thing because it has turned out to be rather an amazing experience that I'm glad I didn't miss. A meditation on the human condition, an exploration of identity and self and physicality, and beautifully written. 

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Review of Moana

As with Frozen, I think I'm not the target market for this Disney film, but I wanted to catch up on it. There was lots to like. The visuals, especially the tattoos and the animated tattoos on the Maui character, really look Polynesian, rather in the way that Frozen acknowledges the Sami visual culture. It's thoroughly pagan, with no concessions to a Christian world-view. There aren't any redeeming white people - it's just a Polynesian story. The heroine is a little girl, and one of the other significant characters is her grandmother. But it's not hard to see why it isn't a Disney classic. The songs are mainly not great, and the sidekick animals - a pig and a chicken - are not good enough to inspire affection or humour. Which is a shame, because there's a lot to like. I loved the depiction of the outrigger canoes, especially the big ocean-going ones that make an appearance at the end. And the way that Moana learns to do the Polynesian hand navigation theme is great, and represents part of the film's homage to the navigational feats of the Polynesians
One thing I didn't like, though, was the implicit message of the ending - that it's important not to be confined by the ecological constraints of your island. There's a song early on that says 'The Island Gives Us Everything We Need', but it turns out to be wrong - the answer to the ecological crisis that besets the islanders turns out to be partly magical, but also involves learning to voyage beyond the island again, as the ancestors did. Which is a nice anti-colonial message, but not a good one in terms of recognising ecological limits and learning to live within them. I can't help thinking of the nutjobs in California who think that Elon Musk's private rocket program is the 'answer' to climate change.