Sunday, February 28, 2021

Review of "Modern/Love in Seven Short Films"


Quite enjoyable collection of short films about relationships...billed as from America, the UK and Australia, though five were American. Actually the British one was the least enjoyable...just went on and on, and the intentional discomfort wasn't as enjoyable as the film makers must have imagined. But quite fun. Might have been more enjoyable watched separately rather than all together.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Review of "Matter" by Iain M Banks

Third one in the series, and the best so far, even if the Ruritanian comic opera dimension is sometimes a bit annoying. Nice the way that we have an outsider to guide us into experiencing The Culture, so that things can be explained without the need for an omniscient narrator, and nice the way that she's related to the story of what's going on in the main Sursamen-based narrative. We also get a better explanation of the hierarchy of civilisations (and species) and how they fit together. I'll read the others. I don't love them, but I like them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Review of "Twilight of Democracy : The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends" by Anne Applebaum

 I hate this book so much it's hard to know where to start. It's ignorant - full of little factual errors like the suggestion - partly withdrawn, but still left hanging - that apartheid South Africa was a 'one-party state', or that Bolshevik Russia invented the one-party state (it didn't, that honour falls to Fascist Italy, which barely gets a mention in the book).  It's uninterested in any of the intellectual history or political theory with which anyone else has ever reflected on the issues she is touching on - Benda's Traison des Clercs gets mentioned all of the time, but there's no mention of Talmon's Origins of Totalitarian Democracy - not that I particularly like it, but it's a serious attempt to deal with the tension between democracy and liberty. This isn't. It's an annoying partisan rant, a whine that her kind of conservative is losing out to another kind.

She never finds it possible to talk about the excesses or crimes of the far right without talking about the far left, sometimes suggesting that the right have simply copied their bad practices and ideas from the if two hundred years of lynchings and Jim Crow and massacres of Blacks by Whites is balanced by the pitiful armed struggle of the Weather Underground. She idealises Thatcher and Reagan, as if their regimes were characterised by a wise, balanced and generous liberalism. One of the things she doesn't like about the Law and Justice Party in Poland is its use of anti-gay prejudice to mobilise its base...conveniently forgetting who put the anti-gay Section 28 on the statute book in the UK. And Thatcher's description of the striking miners as The Enemy Within. And her abolition of the Greater London Council when it elected the wrong people. And her jailing of local councillors who stood up to her restriction of local authority budgets to make municipalities introduce service cuts. 

And the idea that Reagan was a generous, honest, optimistic conservative? Oliver North anyone? and Iran-Contra? And the CIA aid to Bin Laden in Afghanistan? 

There is, of course, no attempt to understand the way in globalisation has failed the people who are now turning to alternatives...I'm sorry that they are mainly turning to nationalist ones, but she doesn't have anything to say about what wasn't working before. The race to the bottom for wages and workers' rights, which has been a big part of why European businesses relocated to Poland. China doesn't even get a mention in the whole book, though Trump's opposition to trade deals with China is a big part of his appeal. 

Worst of all is that the book doesn't actually deal with the most important aspect of the people that she's talking about - how they've managed to create a 'democratic' version of authoritarianism. Law and Justice, and Orban in Poland, and Putin in Russia, have not created a classic fascist state with other parties banned and uniformed militias in the street. Instead they've got better at doing capitalist democracy than their centrist, soft-left and traditional Christian Democrat opponents. They tweak the rules of democracy to favour their parties, without needing to ban or even right elections. They take control of the media in their countries, but they mainly leave it in private hands rather than take it all under state control. Which means that it doesn't look all that different from say Tory Britain, or Berlusconi's Italy. In fact a proper analysis of the decline of democracy would spend a lot more time in Italy, looking at how private and state control of media interact, and 'reforms' of electoral law to favour the ruling party, have played out.

I'd like to mention in parting the Swiss-based Democracy Barometer, which has a much more sophisticated understanding of democracy than she looks at the different aspects of how political democracies function, including the representativeness of their electoral systems, the funding of political parties and controls on election spending, the access to media...

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Review of "Dogs Don't Wear Pants"

Billed by All4 as a romantic drama, this was a stark and occasionally horrifying film about the world of BDSM. Juha is a successful surgeon whose wife dies tragically and unexpectedly in a swimming accident at their summer house by a lake, and he's unable to deal with his grief or move on. Then he stumbles into an S&M dungeon underneath the tatoo parlour where he takes his young teen daughter for her tongue piercing (he's a very permissive dad) and finds himself drawn to the activities there. He goes back for a session, and then another - the main appeal is sexual asphyxiation, during which he finds himself reconnected with the dead wife.

There is a lot of depiction of the mechanics of the scenes. The rubber-wearing dominatrix, Mona, is not simply working at this - she has a day job as kind and caring physiotherapist, and she is herself fascinated and engaged by BDSM. And there's something about the connection with Juha that seems to affect her one point they kiss after she's finished strangling him, something that appears to be proscribed in the BDSM practioners' handbook.

And the scenes get darker and darker...this is no 'Escape to Eden' or 'Maitresse', where the fascination with BDSM often has a light, even comic touch. There's lots of extreme pain, disfiguration and sometimes brushes with near-death. I found bits of really hard to watch, even though it has an apparently happy ending in a BDSM club.

Watche on All4.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Review of 'News of the World'


Nice enough archly liberal western yarn with Tom Hanks as a bloke that goes from town to town reading the highlights from newspapers to assembled audiences in 1870s Texas, who finds a young girl child and is lumbered with returning her to her only living relatives. She's been abducted from her German settler family by Kiowa native Americans and seems to speak only Kiowa, and the home she wants to get back to is the Kiowa. But he's taking her to a German uncle and aunt who live near Castroville.

It's set against a background of the South during Reconstruction, though that's not really dwelt upon. Indeed, given how little most contemporary Americans know about that period there might have been a little more, especially now when the Confederate re-enactors seem to be such a powerful political force. There are some nods in that direction - early on the protagonist finds the body of a Black man who has been lynched by white supremacists, but after that Black characters mainly appear in a few crowd scenes. And there are few references to the relations between native Americans and settlers, but again that's not really the point of the story.

Still, it was a properly made film with nice acting and cinematography.

Watched on Netflix.

Review of 'Hamnet' by Maggie O'Farrell

Loved this so much...not read Maggie O'Farrell before, but saw her talking about this book at last year's Hay Festival, which was of course online like everything at that point. She seemed really interesting but also sympathetic and reflective. Then I forgot about it until a friend lent it to me.

It's so beautifully written, with an interesting narrative structure (different time periods) and it feels really contemporary, with a plague background and so much uncertainty about the way that the infection process and the disease works. And the love, and the longing, and the characters who are so different from each other but so well depicted, and the descriptions of the interior settings...both kinds of interior actually, the ones inside the characters and the ones that the characters are inside of. Just beautiful. I don't often have a cry with a book, but I did with this.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Slow Cooker Vegan Moussaka recipe

 Slow cooker vegan moussaka

Make the 'meat' layer as follows: 

Saute (that's "fry") onions and garlic in a pan, slowly. Add a can of chopped tomatoes, some salt and pepper, and some cooked kidney beans (can use a can). I added six sprigs of thyme because we had it. Simmer for a while until it's not runny. I mashed it a bit.

Make the white sauce as follows:

Cooked butter beans (can use a can, I used two cups dry, soaked overnight, cooked in pressure cooker for forty minutes), half a cup of cashews soaked overnight, blended with hand blender. I added some water to make it a bit runnier and three cloves of garlic, fried. Note that this is better than dairy white sauce, and with some herbs and chillies is great for macaroni cheese or spaghetti. This makes too much for the moussaka so I froze half.

In the slow cooker put a layer of potato slices (about 1cm thick, I didn't peel). I sprinkled with oil.

Then a layer of the kidney bean mush - about 4cm.

Then a layer of sliced aubergine - again about 1cm thick, rounds.

Then another layer of kidney bean mush.

Then a layer of white sauce - I recommend about 2cm deep.

Put the slow cooker on high and leave for seven hours or a bit more.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Review of "L'ultimo Paradiso"

Unsatisfactory Italian film about Puglian villagers in the 1950s - beautifully filmed, slow, but confusing and a bit vaccuous. Lots of adultery, revenge and honour killings, and so on, but the story barely makes sense. The poster makes it look like it's a lush romance, but actually it's grim and dark.

Watched on Netflix. 

Monday, February 08, 2021

Review of Fish Tank

Hard-to-watch but worthwhile coming of age film about a young woman growing up in mainly-white and poor Barking. She lives with her feckless, hostile Mum and younger sister in a council flat, where there's lots of booze, and occasional partying, but not much food or comfort. She aspires to be a dance of the break-dancing kind, and sometimes practices in an abandoned empty flat on the estate. Her Mum gets a new boyfriend who is nicer to her, and the family, than anyone else, but her growing teenage sexuality means that she's attracted to the boyfriend, with disastrous results.

Lots more to say but I don't want to add any spoilers. I note in passing the fact that it's probably about 2010 but there are several bits of technology (personal CD players, for example) that look really dated.

This film deservedly won awards and is very much worth watching. Amazing that some of the places in it were only a few miles from where I grew up, but I never ever visited them. Tilbury in particular looks like it belongs in another universe, with a mixture of industrial, post-industrial, agricultural and scrubland landscapes, with scattered pockets of shiny new housing estates.

Watched on Netflix - the best film I've seen there for a while.

Review of 'Rose Island'

 Gentle, amusing Italian film about a quirky and awkward young engineer who builds a platform off the Adriatic coast near the resort town of Rimini, declares an island and independent, and then runs it a bit like a beach club. We're sort of in the Italian version of 'Passport to Pimlico' here, with a sort of Tory anarchism that celebrates escaping from the control of the state, but appears not to want to do anything particularly out-of-control apart from circumventing what are seen as petty regulations. 

Because it's the Italian version, the state is both more ridiculous and more sinister, but it's the same sort of territory. And whereas the British version was set against a background of post-war austerity and rationing (which don't happen in the independent state of Pimlico), the Italian version takes place in 1968, with the somewhat spurious suggestion that the independence of Rose Island is somehow linked to the wave of protests sweeping Europe at the time.

There are nice Italian settings and food, some nice music, and some pretty people dancing on the 'island', which looks a lot like an offshore oil platform.

Fun fact...I was probably only a few miles away at the time. We had a few family holidays in the late 1960s in the resorts of Cattolica and Lido di Jesolo, just down the road from Rimini.

Watched on Netflix.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Review of 'I am Greta'


Fly on the wall documentary about Greta Thunberg and her one-child campaign against climate change. I felt sometimes awed by the strength and purity of her commitment...the sailing to New York thing was a thing of genius, and puts to shame all those celebs who fly across the Atlantic to attend a climate change conference. And sometimes bitter and toxic and powerless, especially at all the abuse hurled at her by right-wing politicians and commentators (the Australians were particuarly vile), and the sincere but vaccuous admiration of others (like Macron) who want a selfie with her before getting back to business as usual. I thought about how the story of the Emperor's new clothes would have gone if it was happening today, and the heaps of shit that would have been tipped on to the little boy until he'd gone away and everyone could get back to admiring the wonderful robes. And I couldn't help but feel despair, because despite lovely kids nothing has changed, and emissions keep on rising.

Watched on BBC iPlayer, which didn't work very well.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Review of 'Philophobia'

Not so good high school movie about a boy infatuated with the beautiful but unavailable girl that used to be his next-door friend, and is now the girlfriend of the school bully. Hard to watch - literally, because it was streamed from some independent platform that didn't work so well - but also because the boy and his friends are so stupid in the way that 17-year old boys can be. The girls - and the women, mainly the boys' mums who seem implausibly young and glamorous - don't seem like real people at all, but maybe that's because they are girl/women as imagined by 17-year old boys. The film did rather remind me of what it felt like to be that age, and it wasn't a good feeling for the most part.

Watched on some weird streaming platform called something like Eventbridge, that didn't work very well.

Review of 'The Dig'

Quite good period drama about the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship, set (as was the real excavation) in the last days before the outbreak of WW2. Lots of class prejudice - Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, the 'excavator' (not a proper archaeologist, see) who begins the dig, finds the ship, and is then more or less pushed out by posher chaps from the British Museum who hear about the find and take it over. There's a love story - one of the archaeologists is a woman whose archaeologist husband is obviously not interested in her or women in general, and she falls for the young handsome cousin of the lady on whose land the ship is found. Lots of unhappiness, and the sense that the find is something to do with the English identity that is about to be tested in the war.

Watched on Netflix.