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'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 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.