Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Review of Lady Susan

A fun, enjoyable piece of C18th chick-lit, with lots of nicely observed bitchiness; I'm not sure why this isn't part of the regular Jane Austen canon, because it's beautifully written. It took me about ten minutes to get used to the language. I particularly liked the way Austen manages to progress the story without any third person narrator. The epistolary novel may be very dated form, but it seems bang up to date, sharp and contemporary, here. I'm only sorry that she seems to have given up at the end, so that the denouement comes from the perspective of an omniscient third-party narrator. Actually, I'm also sorry that I couldn't work out what was going on with Lucy Manwairing at the end - I can tell that she is humiliated, but I'm not sure exactly how.

Which leads me to another observation - the characters in this seem like C18th versions of us, but they aren't. They are as foreign as women in ancient Athens or contemporary Saudi Arabia, an idle rich 'leisure class' who live off the labour of others and spend their lives managing the consolidation of property through marriages.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Review of 'Love and Friendship'

A bit of a meringue of a film - too sweet and light, not quite sour and sharp enough for the content. It's a movie treatment of a Jane Austen epistolary novel, Lady Susan, not published in the author's lifetime - and recently 'novelised' by the film's writer. The book is bitchily great, and the film isn't quite good enough. It's clear the cast of luvvies had a lot of fun making it, especially the dressing up and the hair and the sets - Kate Beckinsale alone seems to have three different hair artists working on her. Despite this, though, she's just not mean enough - the Lady Susan in the book is really rather darker.

I note in passing that the best friend character has been turned in to an American - she isn't in the book. Haven't we grown out of that yet?

It's watchable enough though, and there are quite a few laughs, and it did persuade me to read the book (free for kindle, unlike the re-novelisation), so not a complete loss.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill, in one of the newly refitted screens - a bigger screen than previously, sofa seats with little tables on the arms for drinks and snacks. It's clear where the cinema business model is going.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Operation Basalt

A well-written and gripping account of a little-known incident in WW2, this book also raises interesting questions about the nature of historical memory and the purpose of writing history.

In October 1942 with the Axis powers still in the ascendant the British launched a small-scale raid on the German-occupied island of Sark, one of the smallest of the Channel Islands. It was a tiny pinprick against the Nazis, yet it had significant consequences, not only of the people whose lives it touched but also for others far away – civilian and military prisoners who were caught up in the cycle of repression and counter-repression that it triggered, and all those Allied soldiers engaged in commando and partisan warfare, who were henceforth to be summarily executed if captured.

Eric Lee conveys the military and political context of the raid with a deft touch, setting out the background without labouring it. He also describes the raid itself with all the skills of a thriller writer, and it’s easy to imagine oneself there with the commandos, stumbling about in the dark and finding that things aren’t the way they look on maps or aerial photographs. I couldn’t help thinking how we have become used to our present surfeit of information – I can look up any of the unfamiliar terms in the book in a second (even when I’m on a train, as I did yesterday), or check out a Google map or street view of the places mentions. Then, the commandos and their leaders back in Britain had little idea what was going on in the islands – almost impossible to contemplate now.

On the other hand, the extent to which the raid unleashed a round of information warfare seems very modern. It’s hard to believe that the Nazis claimed to be the injured party in breaches of the ‘rules of war’, but they did.

One other thought struck me. This event was relatively recent, and well-defined. It took place within the context of military bureaucracies that tried to keep accurate and detailed records, and several of the participants left eye-witness accounts.

Yet it’s already impossible to dis-entangle some of the details – how many prisoners did the commandos take, and how many casualties were there? What happened to one of the civilians who played a key role? It’s to the author’s credit that he manages to solve some mysteries, shed some light on others, and admit where he is unable to do either.


This is a great and enjoyable book, and I look forward to reading more history by this author.

Review of The Portable Veblen

I picked this up because I rather like the odd economist-anthropologist Thorsten Veblen; I’d used terms like ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘leisure class’ loosely for ages until I actually read him, and found him to be brilliant and insightful, and rather relevant to our emerging post-capitalist civilisation.

But while the main protagonist of this novel is named for and keen on the original Veblen, it’s not really about him at all. Instead, it’s about relationships – between lovers, between parents and children, between siblings, old friends and everyone else. Oh, and trauma-induced brain damage, and medical experiments, and the regulation of medical trials, and the treatment of the mentally ill.

A few pages in I decided that this was not my sort of book at all, but I am so glad that I stayed. McKenzie is a very good writer, with a superb eye for details. There’s a good and well-structured plot for those that need that sort of thing (me), and sometimes the interplay between parents and children, and between siblings and parents, was so good it seemed that she’d been listening in on my sessions with my therapist.

So just read this. And then go read some Veblen too – I went and got myself a new copy of the Theory of the Leisure Class when I finished this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of Florence Foster Jenkins

Much lighter than the recent French film ‘Marguerite’, which was a more fictionalised version of the same story but dwelled more on the tragic aspects of the story. The acting is more camp and over-done, though it’s interesting to see Hugh Grant actually acting. It still has some poignancy, especially in terms of the relationships that MFJ develops with the men around her, who come to care about her feelings enough to protect her from realising how dreadful she is. It also doesn’t shrink from the fact that she had syphilis, which is surely a first in a film designated as suitable for general viewing. And it manages to imply that her pianist is gay without over-doing it.

Also beautiful to look at, in the interiors, the lighting, the costumes, and even the long shots down New York avenues – how did they manage to get the city back to the 1940s? I noticed in the credits that some of it was shot in Liverpool and Glasgow – I wonder which scenes. And a lovely scene with 'Sing Sing Sing' on a gramophone at a party.


Watched at Woodford Odeon, with my mum, in a surprisingly full cinema for a Wednesday night.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review of Sing Street

Disappointing Irish teen band film – so transparently a wish-fulfilment fantasy that it didn’t really hold my attention. Nice premise – posh kid gets sent to tough school because his parents are broke, survives and attracts cute (slightly older) girl by forming a band with his mates. But if we are expecting a teen version of The Commitments, that’s not what we get. The band are brilliant from the very start. He writes brilliant songs with no apparent effort. There’s no conflict within the band, they all practice regularly at one of the band member’s house while his mum bring them tea and snacks, the pretty girl is snaffled straight away – even the lead’s violent school-bully nemesis is won over and becomes the band’s roadie. Too good be true, and too good to be an interesting film.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review of Mustang

A beautiful, sad film about five young girls growing up in a rural community in North Eastern Turkey. Though the reviews seem to present this as a ‘coming of age’ story, it’s something rather nastier than that implies. The girls are brought up by their conservative grandmother and their patriarchal uncle, both of whom are very conservative and apply increasingly strict controls over their lives. The house is gradually turned into a prison from which a family-arranged marriage is the only sanctioned escape, and the girls respond to this in different ways. There are a few light moments when they occasionally break out, but it becomes increasingly dark and claustrophobic. A good advert for mainstream feminism and modern liberal urban life; almost the only decent man in the film is the gay truck delivery man befriended by the girls (they do refer to him as ‘queer’, but it’s only the slightly unusual facial hair that marks him out).

It's a Turkish-German co-production, with great music. It also has a sort of German look to it, which set me to wondering whether that was measurable. Are there national (or personal) styles in film making that would be revealed by statistical analysis – length of static or panning or zooming shots, length and angle of close-ups, time between cuts, etc? I wonder whether there has been any work on this. It seems so obvious that I can’t help thinking someone must have done it.


Anyway Mustang (I don’t know why it’s called that – a Turkish cultural reference that is lost on me?) is a good but sombre film.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review of Dr Strangelove

Somehow I've never got round to seeing this, so I was grateful for the chance to watch it in the Middle Floor at Springhill.

It's horrible, though not in a bad way. Although it's billed as a black comedy there aren't many laughs. It's mainly a believable story about how a rogue air force general goes nuts and starts the slide towards a nuclear war, which then can't be stopped by any human agency.

It's very anti-military, and also quite anti-American. The Russians are largely invisible - the Soviet premier is on the end of a phone line but we don't hear his voice, and the Russian ambassador is mainly decent, though he does take pictures of everything in the secret war room. The Americans are bureaucratic, at least slightly mad, and sex-crazed. I don't think a film like this could be made now, though I suppose 'In the Loop' wasn't all that far off, particularly in the way it portrayed the relationship between the sensible but ineffectual Brits and the crazy but powerful Americans.