Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Review of 'I Married a Communist' by Philip Roth

This is one of the good Roth books (I really hate some of them) – well written, and with several important subjects addressed; McCarthyism, the failure of the American Left, and relationships between people with…um…issues.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. It has a weird structure, with a youngish narrator being told most of the events by an older man recalling them…only the narrator was there for some of the narrative so can provide his own perspective – and sometimes it becomes hard to remember who is talking or what they are saying. It’s a bit muddled and confusing, and not strictly necessary.

It starts out exploring the impact of the blacklist on people’s lives, and the impulses that drove good people into first the Henry Wallace Progressive movement and then to the Communist Party. It covers well the fine impulses that drove people there, and also the sheer misery of the CP’s twists and turns and what they meant for those people. It explains how the New Dealers and liberals were the real target of the red-baiters, and how much nasty score-settling went on.

But two thirds of the way it seems to change tack and sentiment; the liberal and communist characters are suddenly driven not by personal or political conviction but by their own emotional flaws. Some of this is revelation of the plot, and some of it feels like Roth changed his mind and started to write a different book.

And the portrayal of the mutually destructive relationship between the main protagonist and his wife, and her previous destructive relationships with men and with her daughter, are really horrible. It’s put into the mouths of those characters who are generally reliable and insightful witnesses, so we are supposed to take it as a true and honest account.

This is just misogyny, spiced up with some racial and class awkwardness. The knowledge that this is really about Roth’s relationship with Claire Bloom, and that many of the facts map on to the real story, makes it skin-crawling.

At the end Roth brings it back to the historical events covered in American Pastoral – the failure of liberalism in the face of Black-led riots and urban degeneration. It’s all hopeless and depressing, and the moral is that those who pursue political or civil goals based on the possibility of change are fools who waste their own time and put themselves and those they care about in harm’s way. There is some ‘bracketing’ of the view, but the argument against it which is offered doesn’t feel strong or deeply felt.


Very painful to read much of the time, although it is a mostly good book.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Review of 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Hard to know how to review this. It's much too long, for a start. Jordan Belfort is too disgusting a person with whom to spend three hours - doesn't Scorsese know how to indicate that time passes without...it actually having to pass? The film does show how nasty the crowd around him and his brokerage company was, but it's mostly in terms of their moral depravity - drugs and hookers. There isn't much sense that what they in business terms was wrong, and had victims - just that it was against the rules. And Belfort is portrayed as someone with his own moral code, that he stuck too - he never ratted on his real friends, the guys from his neighbourhood that he recruited to run the company with him. (In this he is rather like the Mafia types in Scorsese's Goodfellas; maybe that's the best way to think about Wall Street, as just another organised crime gang.) Even when he's wearing a wire because he has become a cooperative witness, he takes risks to indicate to them that he is doing so - though inexplicably that doesn't seem to have any consequences. He still only serves three years, in a nice prison with tennis courts.

That's the message of the whole film, really, that this stuff doesn't have consequences. His marriage is wrecked, mainly by his drug and hookers habits - but he didn't seem to care much about any of that anyway. After his imprisonment he's still giving motivational lectures on selling. Of course, it would be wrong for this to have a happy ending, with justice being served and the evil-doers getting their just desserts. That isn't what happens in real life, and it would be implausible to tell a financial story that ended that way. There is a touch of consolation in the familiar Hollywood theme that the rich and powerful aren't any more happy than the rest of us, but even that is not really carried through. A certain kind of young man seeing this film would think of it as a recruiting commercial for the financial services industry.


Monday, April 04, 2016

Review of 'Frozen'

My kids were grown up by the time this came out, and they are possibly of the wrong gender too, so I never got to see this. This weekend we decided that since so many little girls have grown up with it, it must be a cultural reference point, and we ought to see it anyway. So we watched it from a DVD in the Middle Floor at Springhill Cohousing.

It was much, much better than I was expecting. The merchandise from the film is of course aimed at providing stuff to buy for the little-girl fans. But the film itself is quite dark, and touches on some quite heavy issues - the things that are never talked about in families, what it feels like to have an older sibling grow away from you, having powers (feelings) that you can't control. The love between sisters is a major theme and well handled. Even the silly snowman character, who is unaware that his enjoyment of warmth will bring about his own demise, brings up some stuff about mortality.

It's also worth noting that it comprehensively trashes the idea that you will know true love when you find it - and I was pleased to see that the worst baddie doesn't look or sound like a villain at all, at least for most of the film. We are as taken in as the characters in the film.

It's great the way it engages with Norse and Sami mythology, and the look of it is really great - though there are goofy comic characters, and the marshmallow monster was lame and not frightening, some of the others are well drawn and wouldn't look out of place in Studio Ghibli steampunk. I particularly liked the way that the ships looked, and the vision of frozen Oslo. The ice storm effects, and the way that the ships crash about towards the end, are very effective.

Interesting that some of those who watched it with us, and who had seen it several times before, felt the need to disparage it as soppy, even though they clearly wanted to watch it again.

The poster above is the soppiest version - there were others which looked darker, and which emphasise the relationship between the film and the Hans Christian Andersen story, 'The Snow Queen', on which it is based.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review of 'Burlesque'

Unbelievably, Netflix gave this 4.5 stars. Execrable dialogue, lame and predictable plot, squeaky-clean burlesque club where the healthy and apparently wealthy dancers are all one big happy family...mainly an opportunity for Christina Aguilera to sing and dance with few clothes on.

I have a soft spot for Cher, though I can no longer remember why. Has she actually ever been in any good films?

Almost embarrassed to post this review because it means I'm admitting that I watched the film.

Review of 'Marguerite'

Watched at a cinema in Bath, on a rainy Easter Saturday, partly to get out of the rain.

This is a rather long but very good period drama, loosely based on the life of the American woman Florence Fletcher Jenkins, who thought she was a great singer but wasn't. Curiously, there is another film about her life about to be released, starring Meryl Streep, more closely based on her actual life and apparently much more obviously comic.

The reviews of this one were rather misleading, in that they describe it as a rather light period comedy, but it's actually very painful to watch - about self-delusion, deceit, and the corrupting power of money. The Baroness Marguerite has never been told that she has a dreadful singing voice and appalling technique, and hasn't worked it out for herself. Everyone in her life has an interest in deceiving her about this, including some young blades who think her lack of talent is both powerfully symbolic of something-or-other and screamingly funny.

It builds to a humiliating public performance and then worse for Marguerite, who it's impossible not to like despite everything. It's impossible to like almost everyone else in the film.

It's odd that you wait half a lifetime for a film about such a woman and then two come along at once. For me the film evoked the feelings I associate with impostor syndrome, even though it depicts what seems to be the opposite. Marguerite thinks she has talent even though she doesn't, whereas impostor syndrome is about the feeling that you don't have competence but have thus far fooled everyone - a bit like feeling that you are a Marguerite. Not exactly the same, because impostor-syndrome sufferers don't think that everyone is conspiring to deceive them, but rather that no-one else has realised...

A really good film - looking forward to seeing the other one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review of 'The Guard'

A brilliant dark comedy drama centred on a policeman in rural Ireland caught up in a flawed operation to intercept a major drug shipment through his patch. The cop (Brendan Gleeson) is only a bit corrupt, but he's sarcastic and magnificently unambitious, so he's not afraid to offend either his bosses or metropolitan sensitivities, liberal or otherwise.

The plot involves a preppy Black FBI man, IRA arms caches, a terminally ill mother, philosophically inclined drug smugglers...and plenty more that can't really be discussed without drifting into spoilers. Lots of the cinematography is beautiful, and much of the rest is effectively claustrophobic. The dialogue is so sharp I wanted to hear it all again, or see it written down - but there are lots of really good visual jokes too. A great film - I wish there were more like this.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review of "The Fracking Cult Murders: A Steampunk Novel"

I'm sorry I didn't like this more, because I recognise that it's a bit like my own book - alternative history, a lot of humour, and self published (though unlike me the author has made a good job of that - a proper name for his publisher, and I like the cover).

I liked the version of the modern world that has evolved without electricity or the internal combustion engine, but is nevertheless recognisably modern. It's not a cod-Victorian world. I think that's clever.

On the other hand, I really couldn't be bothered with the plot, and I didn't find most of the characters engaging enough. There were also too many plot elements - the late introduction of the S&M brothel is particularly irritating in that respect. I'm not adverse to a bit of S&M sex, but it's either part of the story or it isn't. And there's an awful lot of food descriptions, particularly cake. It's funny at first, but it began to get on my nerves.

Nevertheless, I'm not sorry I spent the time with this book, and hope to read some others by the author.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Review of 'Parrot and Olivier in America'

A very well-written, cleverly structured, thoughtful historical novel. Lots of insight into character, but also into big issues like the meaning and values of democracy. It’s a sort of fictionalised account of De Tocqueville’s visit to America, but with more fun and adventures, and tension between the two very different narrators. I usually enjoy Peter Carey’s work, and this one makes up for the awful ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’.

I found the last few pages particularly poignant, especially since it’s the insights of the anti-democratic aristocrat that turn out to be the more astute and prophetic.

Review of 'Solar'

A comic novel of sorts, with a rather nasty after-taste. It's well written, because McEwan  is a brilliant writer, and he has engaged with science (both the content and the organisational aspects) in some depth. But the main character is quite horrible, and it's impossible to ignore that the author has tried to make him more horrible by making him short and fat. Most of the other characters are horrible too, apart from the protagonists' long string of long-suffering wives and lovers.

There are great descriptions of the kinds of magical thinking and self-bargaining that goes on when anyone fails to resist temptation. Science Studies comes off rather badly - although McEwan isn't a physicist he does seem to have bought into the physicists' view of their own perceived place in the intellectual hierarchy. On the other hand, he does engage properly with climate change, even if he puts the arguments in the mouths of some horrid people.

Review of "The Way of the Cross (The Cathar Wars Book 1)"

This is a well-written historical novel with a focus on the military aspects of the Albigensian Crusade. Although the political issues and the social significance of Catharism are not ignored, that’s not what this is about. The central character is Simon de Monfort, and it’s more or less told from his point of view. This rather obscures some of the real nastiness, though it’s not glossed over – we do have heretics burned alive and showing real courage, but it’s not from their point of view – they are more or less ciphers. Lots of detail about medieval siege-craft, which was interesting but not really what I was after.