Friday, May 29, 2020

Review of Brick

Watched again after at least five years, mainly because we just watched 'Knives Out', also written and directed by Rian Johnson. At the first watching Brick made a really good impression - mashing up High School drama and Detective Noire seems like such a brilliant idea. On second watching it was still good, but not nearly as good as Knives Out. The dialogue was so quiet and mumbly it was hard to make sense of some of it, and I'm still not sure I got all of the plot. I had to read the Wikipedia article just to get some of the characters' names.

The behind the scenes loyalty of Brendan's friend 'Brain' is kind of implausible...they don't seem to have any other relationship at all. And I know we ought to suspend disbelief, but the fact that all these hard-nosed hard-bitten gangsters are still in school and living at home with their parents seemed hard to take - though of course lots of the gang members in the UK are doing exactly that.

Is this the last film in which young people seem to do all of their communications via payphones? It's 2005, didn't everyone have a mobile by then? Brain does, though it seems to be a dumb flip-phone, and everyone writes each other little paper notes rather than sends texts.

Liked the moody noire music, and the cinematography was still enjoyable.

Watched via laptop, VGA cable and informal distribution.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Review of 'The Silver Sword' by Ian Serrailier

I didn't read this book as a child. I think my youngest son read it, but at a stage after he'd started reading for himself, so I didn't read it to him. It's about a group of Polish children who cross Europe in the very last days of the war, and the immediate aftermath, to find their parents; their mother is Swiss and their father has managed to escape from a concentration camp and make his way to Switzerland.

It's beautifully written, simple but engaging. The characters are vivid and differentiated without being caricatures. It's not at all a Holocaust story, though there is some mention of Jews hiding in the woods around Warsaw, where the children go before the Warsaw uprising of 1944.

It rather reminded me of I F Stone's "Underground to Palestine" which I read quite recently - particularly in the way that so much depends on the people who are kind to the refugees as they travel across Europe, and also in the sympathetic descriptions of the Russians and the Red Army - in contrast to the way that they are described in more recent books.

In the afterword Ian's daughter, my dear friend Jane, writes that some adults criticized the book as being to horrific to give to children to read; it's hard to get such things right. I rather think it's not horrific enough - almost all of the people that the children meet along the way are either kind to them or not-so-kind for well-meaning bureaucratic reasons, like the Burgomaster who wants to send them back to Poland because that's where refugees must go. The most frightening things in the book are two episodes on water, where the risk is natural disaster rather than human agency - almost like something out of Swallows and Amazons.

But it's a very good book, and one that I'd happily give to any thoughtful children who liked reading.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Review of 'Knives Out'

At last a good film! Clever, taut (despite being over two hours long), well-plotted, nice to look at (especially the interiors of the house, and especially the study!), and thoroughly enjoyable. Unusual in that it's a who-dunnit where the audience knows the answer for most of the film, but there's still a mystery hanging over us. It's got lots of familiar house-mystery devices, but these are either subverted or just sent up. It's 'inspired by' rather than based on several Agatha Christie novels, which is just as well as she's mainly awful - whereas this is brilliant. Not at all surprised to find it's directed and written by the same guy who did the very clever and atmospheric Brick.

The acting is mainly great, though I was a little bit dubious about Daniel Craig as a southern-gentleman private detective.

Once again watched via informal distribution and VGA cable on our TV; informal distribution seems to be coming into its own as so much of the films available on Netflix and Amazon Prime seem to be crap.

Review of "Now we have your attention; the new politics of the people"

Once again I find myself wanting to write 'this is good, but has a hole at its centre' I am acknowledging that this might be more about me, and how I am feeling at the present, than about the book. Then again, maybe not.

First, the good. Jack Shenker is a very good writer, with an eye for detail and a way of telling illustrative anecdotes that illuminate and bring to life a political argument. I can completely understand why he was shortlisted for an Orwell Prize - in this he is actually rather like Orwell, who was also a very clear writer with a great eye for detail and anecdote. The prose just carries the reader along, and book about our present political condition just flies past like a novel with a plot.

His analysis is good, too. He has a good understanding of the roots of what some of our less insightful centrist commentators call "populism" - the toxic mix of racism, and nationalism, and a sort of plebian "anti-elitism" that is directed at experts, and London, and intellectuals, and the media, much more than it is directed at bankers and the super-rich and their corporate vehicles. I'd like to see him write even more about this, because it's a really important phenomenon. I have a sneaking suspicion that at least sometimes these people and movements could go either way - I'm thinking of the Yellow Vests in France, who started out as an anti-metropolitan, anti-environmentalist backlash movement, but now seem to have aligned themselves with the Left, - at least in the pension reform protests. I think he could and should write a really good book about this, and about the impulses behind Trump's working-class supporters that goes further than the familiar "left behind white people" stuff.

There's lots of good analysis of social movements in here, particular the mushrooming new unions like IWGB and United Voices of the World, and renters' unions incuding ACORN. He writes about some of the links between these and the groundswell of Momentum in the Corbyn-led Labour Party. In some ways this feels already out of date, because Labour's defeat in December 2019 has had a huge impact on the internal politics of Labour, and the tensions that he describes within Momentum have risen to the surface. It's possible that the whole movement has had its day - I'd like to see what he thinks about this, and will look online to see what I can find.

Now to the hole. This is all about defensive organisations, trying to improve wages and conditions, and fight back against the worst, most exploitative and vindictive landlords. But there's nothing transformational in there at all, nothing that could be either a vision of how things could be different or a route map of how to get there. He almost heads into that territory when he starts to consider just how radical the program of Corbyn's Labour really was - because actually by Northern European standards it was all pretty tame. For the most part the program was an attempt to drag anglosphere financialised Britain back towards the north European capitalist democracy mainstream. It most certainly did not envisage the end of capitalism. It would be nice to have some better welfare protection, more protection for tenants, and some non-private housing for rent, but none of this would fundamentally challenge the huge inequalities of wealth and power that exist in Britain.

There are visions for how this might happen, though they are not always convincing. My old chums in the revolutionary left imagine some sort of insurrection, which I think they hoped would happen after the ruling class had been so thoroughly discredited and demoralized that it wouldn't put up much of a fight; I assume that this is what they hoped, because they never actually did much preparing for insurrection. A few serious social democrats think that the Corbynist progam would be a first step towards a gradualist, parliamentary road to actual socialism, in which the capitalist tiger would sit quietly while it is slowly skinned claw by claw.

And there's another vision too, which is gaining ground these days, which is a sort of revived utopian socialism; that it will be possible to build little islands of equality and justice, through co-ops and community-owned enterprises, and Community Land Trusts (to be scrupulously fair, Jack Shenker does write about these latter with some enthusiasm). In this scenario the socialist commonwealth just grows within capitalism, and its success means that capitalism will eventually be bypassed and wither away. There are 'techno-utopian' versions of this, in which new technologies like open source software and 3-D printers are the enabling technologies for this new society in which most things 'want to be free'. Paul Mason - who also writes a lot about struggle - has sometimes inclined to this view (and ties it into a dissection of current conditions), as has the theorist of the Commons Michael Bauwens, and the anarchist Kevin Carson.

There's nothing about this in Jack Shenker's book - fair enough, it's a different book. But like I said, I did miss a bit of the vision thing. Perhaps he's written about this elsewhere, or perhaps he's going to. I do hope so, because his intellect and his eloquence suggests that he'd make a good job of it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Review of Misbehaviour

Slightly disappointing feminist film about the womens-movement disruption of the 1970 Miss World competition in London. I'm too young to judge the historical accuracy, though I am perplexed that the theatre where it's taking place seems to be on Waterloo Place - was there ever a theatre there?

The film is a bit worthy. It's easy to laugh at the sleazy 1970s style sexism of Eric Morley, just as it's easy to be superior to 1960s redneck racists in the Southern USA, without having to address the mechanisms of either racism or sexism as they operate today.

It's also a bit dull, without much dramatic tension. It's possible to have drama even when you know how something is going to turn out, but this doesn't manage it. The poster suggests that this is going to be fun, a bit like Made in Dagenham, but it isn't that enjoyable.

There is an odd countervailing narrative in the personal stories of two Black women contestants - Miss Grenada and Miss African South, the latter introduced at the last minute alongside a white Miss South Africa in an attempt to head off anti-apartheid protests. Both of these make some suggestion that by winning they'd be striking a blow for the self-esteem of Black women and girls. Though the central character, Sally Alexander (played by Keira Knightley) challenges this, the camera-work and the sequencing of shots suggests that they may have a point.

I note in passing:

  • Tutorials at UCL in 1970 had only three students present - today's students don't get that, do they?
  • Protestors in 1970 could take water-pistols that looked like real guns to protests and use them to squirt policement - today you'd get shot dead doing that.
Watched via informal distribution and laptop connected to the TV via VGA cable.

Review of 2040

This is a bright, cheerful film about a sustainable future, but with an odd hole at the centre. It's nice to see a positive vision of 20 years hence, especially when most visions of the future, and certainly the compelling and intelligent ones, seem to be dystopian rather than utopian. Really, though, this is a look a few specific technologies - local energy microgrids, regenerative pastoral agriculture, self-driving cars as a service, and marine permaculture - and how they might contribute to that more sustainable future. It's sometimes thoughtful and reflective...for example, it's aware of the irony of making a film about sustainability by flying the narrator around the world.

But it doesn't do much reflection on social or economic structures, even though it does feature Kate Raworth and her donut economics; it mainly imagines a world substantially like that of our own day, but with the super new technologies in place - a real narrative of technological fix, in which the technologies seem to fix the donut. So the local energy microgrids are based on decentralised energy trading between local producers and consumers - it's easy to imagine distributed ledger geeks drooling over this opportunity, but there's no account of who is going to be operating and profiting from the marketplaces.

It's the same with the marine permaculture. This does look like an exciting technology, but who is going to be operating these ocean farms, and under what kinds of ownership and rights? Presumably right now someone is drawing up frameworks for the commodification of the oceanic commons, but you wouldn't know it - or even think about it - from this film.

And self-driving cars - no recognition that the driving force (oops!) behind the efforts to develop these are Google and its Big Tech competitors, or that existing ride-sharing businesses (especially Uber) work so hard to obtain and then expolit market dominance.

So two cheers - or one and a half cheers - for the film. It is great to find some reasons to be cheerful, but it would be more great of have a positive vision that included some changes to social and economic structures.

Watched via informal distribution and laptop connected to the TV via VGA cable.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Review of 'The Assistant'

This was positioned as inspired by the "MeToo" movement, but it's not what you'd call inspiring. It depicts the working life of a young woman who is the assistant to a senior manager in what is probably a film company - it's not completely clear. Not much in the film is clear - it's very understated, and much of the dialogue is mumbled. It also manages to be tense all the time while still being boring. A few things happen in the film, but everything, every glance and gesture, seems to be invested with significance that does actually go anywhere. The film was less than 90 minutes but felt much longer.

The young woman has to clean up in the boss's office before the cleaners arrive, and we see her picking up a small item of jewellery. But there's not much sign that the boss is an exploitative lecher - we never see the boss at all, just the minions. The young woman has to book hotel rooms for other young women who arrive for vaguely defined jobs, and knows that the boss has gone to the hotel too - she has to cover for him to his wife by saying he's in a meeting.

The description of the film says that the young woman is eventually pushed to make a stand, but she doesn't really. She plucks up the courage to go and speak to someone internal (an HR person? a legal person?) and he belittles what she says and tells her that it's in her best interest to forget it - and she backs down. More or less tearfully she agrees to withdraw what wasn't even a complaint yet, and in the next scene we see that the internal person must have notified the boss, because he calls her up with a lot of swearing. But he seems to get over it pretty quickly - I can't help thinking that in real life that would be it for her, and she'd be sacked.

Much of the film is just about the misery of entry-level corporate life, and though there's always the atmosphere of sexual predation in the background, quite a lot of the misery would apply in its absence, and to male entry-level people too. Having spent some of my working life in corporate environments where there are people who are powerful (usually but not always men) and abuse that power in trivial ways, I can empathise with the feeling of having to eat a little bit of shit every day of your working life. In my experience these people were also bending or breaking the rules - particularly about abuse of expenses - and everyone knew and no-one would do anything about it. That, and the knowledge that you must remain squeaky clean all the time because you wouldn't get away with anything, reinforces that really depressing feeling of being at the bottom of the heap.

Other friends (I'm particularly thinking of Italians) have told me that it was entirely normal for young joiners to an organisation to be expected to make the coffees and work the photocopier for their more established colleagues, and this could go on for years until a new junior joined.

So sexual predators are shit, and no-one should have to endure them, but work can be pretty shit even without them.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Review of 'In The Cut'

Billed as a feminist crime thriller, this 2003 film is dominated by murk and sleaze. Everything in New York looks grimy, and the central character - played well by Meg Ryan, rather against type - seems to thread her way in and out of strip joints and very sleazy bars with pool tables and hookers. Lots of well-contructed plot and mis-direction, and totally gripping all the way through - but I did want to have a shower when it finished. So much gore, so much dirty sex and sweat.

I haven't noticed anyone else remark on this, but it reminded me a lot of Klute, and also Looking for Mister Goodbar, both of which dwell on a New York woman's fear of murder by a serial killer - I think Meg Ryan looked quite a lot like Jane Fonda's character, and some of the stairwell shots seemed to evoke the earlier film.

Watched via laptop and VGA cable - our TV only has one HDMI slot, and we've decided to leave the Chromecast permanently in for fear of breaking it. Interestingly this was via paid for BFI Player, which does not support casting from Android - you can watch the film on your phone but you can't cast it, only 'mirror' it, which doesn't work well. And BFI Player crashed at least three times while we watched it - another example of the 'informal' option being better than the paid-for one.

Review of "HHhH" by Laurent Binet

This has sat on my bookshelf for six years. My lovely parents-in-law bought it for my birthday in 2014, which I know because there was a little note in it. I had avoided reading it because it never felt like a good time to read another book about the Nazis. I started it now because I found out that it was specifically about the assassination of Heydrich, and because I'd become friends with the lovely Dave Kaspar, whose father was the Czech intelligence officer who planned the operation. As a consequence I watched one of the films about the assassination, The Man With The Iron Heart, and I wanted to see how this book treated it.

It's made more interesting because it's as much about Laurent Binet's experience of writing it, and about the genre of historical fiction in general - how much should the author describe events and thoughts that they couldn't possibly know about in order to create dramatic effect or versmillitude? What should be done about historical uncertainties - like was Heydrich's Mercedes black or dark green?

Anyway, it turned out to be a well-written and compelling book, though I didn't much like reading it last thing at night. It chimed well with the film, perhaps because the author has obviously seen it and all the others. It didn't give much time to some of the unexplained aspects of the historical event - like, why was this the one and only time that any European resistance group assassinated a high-ranking Nazi? Was it generally policy not to do that because of the extent of the reprisals that would follow, or was it just too hard usually, and Heydrich's arrogance made it possible only here? Is there any substance to the suggestion that Churchill needed Heydrich killed because he was about to move against his intelligence rival Canaris (who is mentioned a lot in the book) because the latter was actually a British asset (which isn't suggested in the book).

Strongly recommended anyway.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Review of 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote'

Definitely one of Terry Gilliam's better films - for a man with such a striking visual imagination, he has made some terrible films. But this one is good, about an obnoxious film director and his even more obnoxious minions and backers, who are making a Don Quixote film in Spain...where the director had many years previously made his student project film, also about Don Quixote. Facing a creative block, and on a whim, he returns to the village where he'd done the student project, and finds out that some of the people involved there were permanently transformed by the experience; for example, the old shoemaker that he became the Don himself now actually believes himself to be Don Quixote.

It's visually amazing to look at, but - apart from some slapstick elements that I could have done without, but presumably are related to the 'picaresque' elements of the Cervantes story - also well written, with an interesting if convoluted plot and great character acting. I can watch Adam Driver (the director) do anything, and the same applies to Jonathan Pryce, who plays the Don.

He's managed to capture the unearthliness that Spain sometimes has really well - the near-desertlandscape, the ruined castles on rocky outcrops, the baroque-horror cathedrals. I had a strong memory of the Polish film of 'The Saragossa Manuscript', particularly as there are so many dream/delusion sequences. I presume Gilliam has watched that, and wonder whether anyone else has noticed.

Watched on laptop (not entirely comfortable) having obtained via informal distribution; watched on laptop because Ruth really didn't want to watch it.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Review of 'Split: Class Divides Uncovered' by Ben Tippet

This is a short book (around 130 pages) but it's a really good and comprehensive introduction to the way the world is, with particular reference to the UK. It details the extent of inequality across a number of domains (wealth, work and 'opportunity', housing, vulnerability to environmental degradation), and then looks at the factors and processes that underly it - wealth, gender, race, education. It's well referenced, so that the book can serve as a 'gateway' to a much larger body of knowledge, but the language is accessible. It's well structured, and well argued.

I have a couple of little quibbles. The history of hostility to immigrants didn't start with immigration from the Commonwealth after WW2 - not only were there race riots in many British towns in earlier periods, but the origin of immigration controls themselves really begins with the Aliens Act of 1905, designed to prevent the admittance of Jews from Russia; and the struggles around that, and the divisions within the labour movement, illustrate well the points that the author really wants to make. It's really important not to succumb to the myth that Labour, or the socialist movement, has been consistently anti-racist, or that it was in some previous golden age.

And although he spends an entire chapter on explaining why 'class' is not about culture, and that the working class is not the same as the 'left behind white working class' celebrated by right-wing populists - he still slips into the language of 'working class vs. middle class' - even though the latter is as problematic a category as the former. In the US they use 'middle class' to mean 'working class', or at least that portion of it with regular, permanent jobs. Here in the UK 'middle class' might mean white collar workers, or professionals, or...anything really. Part of the sleight-of-hand that the right performs is to make middle class simultaneously stand for people who send their children to private schools (in reality a small fraction of the population) and at the same time refer to everyone with any distinction that lifts them off the very bottom - education, taste preference, white collar work.

We shouldn't fall for this, and we need to recognise that for the most part this middle/working class thing is really about a dividing line - or more than one - that runs through the working class, that class of people that sell their labour. It's not about culture, and it's not even about employment - lots of people are at the mercy of capital even though they are notionally or even really 'self-employed'.

But like I said, these are quibbles. This is a really good book and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a way in to contemporary debates about politics.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Review of 'Gothic'

Inspired by watching the National Theatre's production of Frankenstein online last week, I thought I'd watch some of the films about how it came to be written - the famous afternoon on Lake Geneva with Byron, Shelley, Dr Polidori and Mary Godwin holed up in a villa by the bad weather, and having a competition to write ghost stories. About a year ago I watched a biopic of Mary Shelley, which covers this along with her subsequent difficulties in becoming a published writer, and I said it was decent enough but I wasn't sure that it was necessary. I actually said that this story had been covered before in Ken Russel's Gothic.

Well, I must have thought I'd watched Gothic, but I couldn't have, because I wouldn't have forgotten it, and I would never, never, have decided to watch it a second time. It's not often I give up watching a film before the end, but I turned this off at the 53rd minute - it was at once boring and disgusting. It's tediously trying to shock all the time, it's not very interesting to look at, there's an abysmal score that would have disgraced a Hammer Horror film. Misogynistic in the relish it takes at the violence towards women it depicts. Just awful. How did anyone ever think Ken Russel was any good?

Sorry I was so unfair about 'Mary Shelley', the movie.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Review of "Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Steampunk, Mechanical Men and Otherworldly Endeavours by Derrick Belanger (Author), L.S. Reinholt (Author), Minerva Cerridwen (Author), & 5 more"

I started off really liking the idea - Sherlock Holmes has always felt a bit steampunk anyway. And then the first few stories really didn't do it for me - they felt plodding and self-satisfied, in the way that steampunk content often does, as if it's so pleased with itself for having had the idea that it doesn't actually have to be any good. But then the next few were much better, and the trend continued. So I'd give this three and a half stars if that was allowed.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Review of The Sense of An Ending

Nice sensitive adaptation of Julian Barnes's book, and very much true to the original. Some nice realisation of the split narrative, especially when Tony finds his present-day self present in his memories.

Jim Broadbent very good in the role of the grumpy, awkward narrator; Charlotte Rampling slightly less good as the woman his youthful girlfriend becomes, probably because she seems too old for the part.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via smartphone and Chromecast.

Review of Live Flesh

The Almodovar films are definitely getting better as we proceed through the cannon. This one has a plot, decent characters...everything that you expect from a film really. Sufficient dramatic tension, and still beautifully shot.

I can't help wondering how Elena goes from junkie to respectable philanthropic benefactress and wife of paralympic basketball star during the seven years Victor is away in prison, or how she'd been such a lowlife in the first place given that her father was an Italian diplomat, but it's part of the strength of the film that you don't wonder about this at the time. Javier Bardem is great as the basketball star. Lots of twists, not all equally plausible, but not absurd like the earlier films.

Watched via laptop and cable, having obtained via informal distribution.