Monday, August 31, 2015

Review of 'Paper Towns'

Like the high school noire film 'Brick', but without the plot complexity, the clever cinematography, the drugs, the intrigue...in fact, just a regular US high school rom-com, with a bit of mystery because the most popular girl in the school disappears, but not all that much mystery really because she's always been a bit wild and dark. Mainly a buddy movie about the two male friends who help our hero to look for her, and the relationship between the three boys. Watchable, but not immensely so.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review of 'The Wolfpack'

Possibly the weirdest film I have ever seen, and I have seen some weird ones. This is shot and edited with all the visual sense of a family home movie. That's not surprising, since a lot of it appears to be found footage from the family's home movies. Watching it made Ruth feel physically sick as a result of all the handheld camera work and hosepipe pans. Youtube does a better job of stabilising video footage than has been done here.

That's part of the point, of course. This is supposed to look un-mediated, to enhance its authenticity. It is a documentary about a family of six children (now young adults) and their parents who grow up in a tiny apartment in New York city, with the children never ever leaving the apartment. They have grown up with almost no contact with the outside world - they are home educated, so they've not been to school or met other children...or anyone. Their knowledge of the outside world comes mainly from their DVD collection, which contains a lot of classics and quite a lot of horror or near-horror (like Reservoir Dogs). Their father, a South American man, has kept the family shut up in this way to protect them from the corrosive effects of contemporary culture, drugs, violence etc.

So they've grown up with Tarantino as their window on the world. The mother and father met when she was a hippy tourists, and they'd planned to move to Scandinavia where they thought the values were sound, but somehow they'd not made it and ended up stranded in the Lower East Side, high up in a housing project. No TV, no internet, just the DVDs. The children (five boys, one girl, all with Hindu names and long hair down to the base of their spines) amuse themselves by re-making the films with a home video camera and cardboard props; much of the film contains footage of their re-enactments. They seem to have a huge amount of equipment to help them do this. Later the film shows them emerging from the apartment and going outside for short trips - to the beach, to a forest, to the shops - all of which is a powerful experience for them.

All of them seem quite damaged by the experience, but they are not totally alien to me. I can't help thinking that some of the people I've known over the years who have sought to protect their children from the malign influences of the world have been a bit like this; I recognise some of the feeling in myself. The fact that they'd wanted to move to Scandinavia and thought well of its values somehow marks them out as not entirely insane.

Somehow the young adults came into contact with the woman who made this film, and she is almost present in it. It looks like a student project, and yet it must have had some money and some backing, if only for the post-production and the distribution. I would love to have been at the meeting where this was pitched.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A few notes on Zionism and the Jewishness of Israel

Two separate questions really. The historic status of Zionism, and whether Israel should be ‘the state of the Jewish people’.

On the first one, the story is complicated. Zionism has/had some of the features of a classic (Eastern) European nationalist movement, but it also differed from it in some important ways. I can’t think of another nationalist movement that wasn’t about a people living in its territory, and wanting that people to have self-government on that territory. That in itself makes Zionism problematic. Progressives generally support ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ in the sense that they allow territories to secede. Support for Zionism entails rather more than this basic principle.

The Zionists were also unusually uninterested in the national culture of the people that they represented; they mainly wanted to replace it with another culture which they intended to create. Of course, other kinds of nationalism to some extent ‘invented’ the nation which it championed, but I think Zionism rather took this to an extreme.

Historically, Zionism was a minority movement within the various Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, and even more so in the West. That doesn’t prove that its claim to represent that national movement of the Jews is necessarily wrong, but it is surely relevant. Zionism wasn’t even the only form of Jewish nationalism – there were others, including Territorialism and Sejmism, and the ‘distributed nationalism’ of the various Yiddishist nationalists. Without the sponsorship of the British Empire, and without the holocaust, it would have been an interesting, quirky footnote in Jewish history, like the Garveyites for Black America. There would have been some communities of ‘practical Zionists’ in Palestine, a bit like the Templar communities founded by German Protestants, and they might have survived depending on how an independent Palestine turned out.

And of course, up until the present time most Jews have not been nationalists, and many have argued that the Jews don’t have any national identity apart from citizenship of the countries in which they live. This view was particularly prevalent in Western Europe, where the idea of belong to an ethnos independent of citizenship was not well understood or widely believed in. Believing that ‘national self-determination’ didn’t apply to Jews didn’t make these people anti-semites. That Zionism has been successful in establishing a state doesn’t make them retrospective anti-semites, and therefore it surely doesn’t make anyone who holds this belief now an anti-semite either. It’s just a different view about the applicability of nationalism to the various Jewish communities around the world.

Has Zionism turned out to be a ‘good thing’, in some fair historical balance sheet? It’s possible that Zionism will turn out to have been a good thing for all Jews, or for some Jews. It’s plausible that it won’t, and taking that view doesn’t make someone an anti-semite either.

OK, now the other question. In what sense should Israel be a ‘Jewish State’? Most liberal democracies don’t privilege one ethnic group among their citizens. It’s unusual for the state to record or document individual citizen’s ethnicities. There are some exceptions, usually based on the idea of compensating for or redressing the effect of past discrimination – Australia does something like that as regards Aboriginal people, for example. But in France, and in Italy, the state at least regards everyone with citizenship as French or Italian. Why should Israel be different? Why can’t it accept an ‘Israeli’ national identity and status, irrespective of religion or ethnicity?

This is not an abstract question of tidiness. Ultimately the fate of the Israeli Jews will depend on their ability to make peace with the neighbours. That’s a very tall order, and the Israeli Jews would be foolish to disarm in the hope of this happening. They live in a very rough neighbourhood. It is managing to have plenty of nasty wars without them. The neighbours never wanted them to come, and don’t think they should be there – in the strong sense of ‘should’. Nevertheless, there is no long term future for Israeli Jews, and certainly no democratic future, without it.

I know that there are some Arab nationalists, and some others who are probably not nationalists, who would like all the trappings of Zionism stripped from the state, so that there would be no peculiar ethnic identity in its symbolic representation – changing the words of the Hatikvah, changing the flag, and so on. I can see the tidiness logic of this, but I don’t think it’s very important.


 I do think that legal and institutional discrimination, and segregation and economic disadvantage, for non-Jews in Israel should end. The historic relationship of Israel to the wider Jewish world, and the role of the Zionism movement in bring the state into being, is not sufficient justification for this to continue. Israel will remain a demographically and culturally Jewish country without them, and that’s Jewish enough for me.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review of 'Mistress America'

A good, funny, quirky comedy that's perhaps a bit shallow, but in a good way. Tracey is having a hard time in her first semester (that's 'term', right?) at university in New York, where she feels patronised as a suburbanite in the big city. She can't make friends, she finds the work hard, she's shut out by the cool literary in-crowd.

Then she meets Brooke, who is the daughter of the widowed man her divorced mother is about to marry. Brooke is cool, interesting, and instantly engaged, engaging and sympathetic. Tracey is fascinated, and wants to join in all of Brooke's projects, but at the same time sees her with a more objective and adult eye than her behaviour suggests. She puts a lightly fictionalized Brooke into a short story she writes...well, I don't have to provide a complete synopsis.

But it's a really enjoyable film, with lots of acute observations, great dialogue, and some very funny situations, without a fart or barf joke in sight.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Review of 'Diary of a teenage girl'

This is a very powerful, and for me, rather disturbing film. It was made more disturbing by watching in the presence of two just-post-teenage girls, who were the daughters of friends from Australia that we thought we'd entertain by taking them to a film; the online reviews all suggested that this would be a comedy. Well, there are a few funny moments, but it's mainly painful to watch a young girl growing up among abusive and dysfunctional adults, having under-sex with her pot-head mother's pot-head boyfriend, giving blow-jobs to strangers she meets in bars because she thinks hookers are cool, and so on.

This is not your conventional coming of age film, and there are few tender and sensitive moments. It's raw and not pleasant - though, perhaps because it's contemporary Hollywood it has an implausible upbeat ending.

Review of ‘What we did on our holiday’

A comedy about dysfunctional families, break-up, ageing, disappointment and death. The poster, which makes it look like a British version of all the 'Vacation in Hell' comedies, is quite misleading. This is quite good actually, with David Tennant playing the dad and Rosamund Pike (rather against type) being a somewhat implausible thirty-something mum with three kids. The Tennant character’s own father is dying at his mansion in the Highlands so the family pretends to be together for one last visit. The three kids are great in an ‘Outnumbered’ sort of way, Tennant plays his usual desperate disorganised role, and Billy Connolly plays himself as the slightly curmudgeonly dad (former famous footballer, heart of gold). Celia Imrie as the social worker is also great.

Small note – can’t get over how weird Rosamund Pike looks when she’s not being glamorous. Not quite as alien-looking as Tilda Swinton, but definitely heading in that direction.

Review of ‘I could never be your woman’


Lame-ish romcom set in Hollywood around a 40-ish TV producer who falls for a younger man. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the producer, and lots of British comedy actors appear – maybe they were a job lot. Touches on some important issues, about the way it’s easy to fake photos, and about relationships between people of different ages, and the denial of ageing – but in a fairly useless and insincere way. Everyone else is fake because they are having work done, but Michele Feiffer is just physically perfect and not heir to any kind of mortality. Lots of philosophical crap about male-female attraction voiced by Tracey Ullman playing the part of Mother Nature. 

You can tell how bad this is by the fact that they clips which play over the credits are not ‘out-takes’ but what the film-makers must have decided are just the best funny bits from the film, repeated. Mainly they weren't that funny the first time and don’t bear repeating.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review of 'Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief'

A documentary about Scientology, based on a book, that reveals a lot about the inner workings of the 'church' but leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The main one is 'how come Scientology got to be so powerful when it's obviously ridiculous and run by repellent people?' L Ron Hubbard, the founder, was fat and ugly with bad teeth. So how come? Perhaps part of the answer is that there's nothing so stupid that it won't attract some people, and that the need to belong is so strong that once in some people will find any number of reasons not to leave, however nasty. Look at the WRP, for example. I do rather wonder if there was a relationship between the 'church' and some US government agencies; it does seem to have had rather an easy ride from the authorities. Trouble is that lots of the commentary on Scientology is almost as nutty as they are, so of course there are suggestions that it was a front for the CIA, and the Illuminati, and so on.

The film is a bit on the long side, with lots of testimony from ex-members about the nasty stuff they did, and how it ended up being done to them. I was really struck by the inter-cutting between clips of these people denying that they did some nasty stuff, and other later clips admitting that they had done the same nasty stuff; because what it shows is that demeanour is no guide to truthfulness. We tend to believe that we can tell when people are lying by looking at them. The movies and TV have taught us to believe that people look shifty when they are lying, and that we won't be taken in. Actually, they don't. Maybe decent people squirm a bit when they lie, but bad people, and people who think that it's OK to lie for a purpose, seem not to. Yet our system of justice is in part premised on the idea that ordinary people will be able to tell who is telling the truth.

Review of 'Love and Mercy'

A bio-pic of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who turns out to have been much more troubled than I  could have imagined from the music. A good film, with some good acting, and an interesting split-narrative structure (part during the 1960-70s heyday, part in the early 1990s).

Interesting counterpart with the story of Amy Winehouse. AW was left to the care of people who cared more about themselves, and how they could advance themselves through her career, than they ever did about her physical or mental health. It seems that a bit of dedicated competent professional help might have saved, and allowed her to graduate from youthful excess to grand old lady of Jazz.

Whereas Wilson had professional help in the shape of rogue shrink Dr Eugene Landy, who kept him sick and exploited him ruthlessly. If we are to believe the film then Wilson hit lucky in that he was rescued by car salesperson Melinda Leadbetter, who saw that something was wrong in the doctor-patient relationship. But it does highlight the problem for people who are talented, but not either commercially savvy or strong enough to cope with the pressures of a life in the limelight. How do you know who trust as doctor, counsellor, agent, lawyer, even accountant?

There is, of course, no mention in the film of the Beach Boys's politics, including their performance at a Republican fundraiser in 1984 (from which Brian was ejected). For that you'll have to read this.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Review of 'Amy'

Watched this last night, at the cinema, as part of a ‘première’ with live Q&A with director and producer. Glad I did, because some films need to be seen in a darkened room with a crowd and no other distractions.

This is a beautifully made documentary, without talking head interviews but with lots of found footage with audio interviews running over. It left me profoundly sad, of course, but also angry. I wasn't a huge AW fan, and didn't consume much of the celeb coverage while she was alive. But anyone can see what a huge talent she was, both as a singer and as a writer. So it’s hard to watch her entourage failing her. Other celebs have been protected from the worst impacts of media attention, but she wasn't. She was left to be exposed to it, because the sight of her cracking under the pressure somehow enhanced her market value. Others have survived drugs and bad relationships, but she wasn't given the time or space to regroup and recover, again because those around her wanted to keep her touring and performing. She was too young, inexperienced, and already damaged by early life to take control herself.

I note in passing that it was alcohol and bulimia that killed her rather than the shedloads of drugs that she took, but this is not to defend the drugs and the drug-taking; it all contributed to the dissolution of her personality. I also think that no-one watching this will learn anything. Young people won’t do any less booze and drugs, young women will still want to be thin, the business will still batten on to anyone with talent, and destroy them if they let it.

So sad to think that she wrote all those beautiful songs about someone as obviously shitty as her ex-husband.