Friday, February 17, 2017

Review of 'Born to Be Blue'

In some ways this is a stereotypical jazz musician film. Like the recent Miles film, it's set during a period in which Chet Baker had been successful and now is not. It's got the struggle with drug addiction, the failed relationships with women, the problematic relationship with parents, and so on.

It's very well done, though. What I really liked about it was the way it conveys how physical playing the trumpet is - you do it with your whole body, but especially your mouth and face and lungs and belly. Early on a bunch of disappointed drug dealers beat Chet up, and they knock out his front teeth; an appreciable part of the film is about him relearning how to play, and with dentures. There's a fair bit of blood and a lot of suffering, and practicing in the bath (must try that, perhaps with my plastic trumpet).

I note in passing:

  • In those days being a successful musician did not mean that you were rich. Sure, Chet has a drug habit, but part-successful washed-up rich musicians these days can afford a drug habit and live somewhere better than a camper van. I know that in the 1970s when I was growing up ex-footballers, including members of the winning world cup squad, bought and ran sport shops. Celebrity is more valuable now - part of the increased disparity of wealth?
  • Chet meets his girlfriend working on what seems to be a film about his life - but what film can this be? It seems to be being made in the 1960s, but the other Chet film, Let's Get Lost, isn't made until 1988, the year he dies.
  • Chet lets the grim and gloomy Miles characterize him as a privileged white boy from California, but he's not - he's actually a poor white boy from a grim family farm in Oklahoma. His dad, who is a bad dad from central casting, is probably a pre-prototype of the ignored people who went on to vote for Trump.
  • The girlfriend quite rightly chooses her own career over loyalty to Chet - and when she does turn up for his comeback performance at Birdland it's not a happy Hollywood moment at all, but a [spoiler alert] confirmation that a junkie will always choose junk over everything else.

A great film, highly recommended.

Watched at Landsown Film Club in Stroud.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Review of 'Denial'

A disappointing, plodding, boring film about a subject that ought to have been disturbing and too-engaging. It wasn’t particularly long, but I found myself looking at my watch.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt as a Brooklyn (Queens actually) bimbo. Although it’s her book that forms the basis of the libel suit that David Irving brings, there’s not much sign that she is an expert at anything. She’s not called as a witness or to testify in her own defence. She supplies none of the critical points of evidence on which the case, as represented in the film, seems to turn. The only historical knowledge is presented as belonging to British elite academics. There’s not much sign of the existence of a complex of deniers, with institutions and organisations – if there had been, it would have started to become political and relevant in a way that this film mainly isn’t.

Penguin Books is cited as a co-defendant, but other than that barely appears, apart from a moment when some executive seems to disinterestedly ask Lipstadt if she plans to fight the case. No internal meetings to discuss how to handle this, no consideration as to whether to settle…

It’s full of cinematic clich├ęs – it’s always raining in London, Lipstadt jogs to the statue of Boadicea, there’s little narrative or cinematic innovation (though Lipstadt sees visions of the dying at Auschwitz for a few seconds when she’s very emotionally engaged).

In the end the day is won by super stiff upper-lipped British lawyers, who know how to play the British legal system – which is ultimately the hero of the film. The lawyers’ decision not to call any eyewitness accounts to dispute Irving’s account is represented as entirely justified, and the only survivor we see actually nods at Lipstadt’s press conference where she retrospectively endorses this strategy.

I suppose there is some justification in making the film in that it packages the episode for earnest sixth form students who might otherwise not know this happened, but it seems flat and not useful in a period in which people not unlike Irving are in office in the most powerful country in the world. In particular it doesn’t much dwell on the way that Irving might be said to have won, even though he lost the case, by establishing that there is a ‘debate’ on the historicity of the holocaust. Climate change deniers pursue much the same strategy.

Watched at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Review of 'Manchester by the sea'

A sad film about bereavement, responsibility, masculinity, alcohol. A bloke  (well, an American bloke, so he's probably a guy...but a blokey sort of guy) is living in in Boston and working as a janitor - he's good at the technical side of repairs and maintenance but not so good on the people stuff and has lots of arguments with the trickier tenants. But his brother dies, so he has to go back to the small New England fishing town where he grew up, and he finds that his brother named him guardian of the teenage son, without having forewarned him. Through a series of flashbacks we find out why he left the town in the first place, why he's so angry and so alone, and there's a sort of resolution in the conflict between him and the nephew. But there's no magic wand to make all the bad stuff go away, and we don't learn that everybody is OK really if you only approach them in the right way, or any other heartwarming but false messages. Often quite painful to watch, and long, but beautiful and worthwhile.

Watched at the proper cinema - the Everyman in Muswell Hill.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review of 'Sweet Bean'

Interesting poignant Japanese film about food, nature, loneliness...a young man operates a bean cake shop for someone else. An older woman asks him for a job, and it's clear she doesn't really care how much she's paid. He takes her on, and she turns out to be a fabulous, spiritually inspired cook, and a former sufferer of Hansen's disease (leprosy), so that she's spent most of her time shut up in a closed community. He learns from her and finds himself. Lots of images suggesting the redemptive power of nature (especially trees) and the alienating influence of modern buildings, technology etc.

Watched at Landsowne Film Club.

Review of 'Together (Tillsammans)'

When a friend told me about this film I confused it with 'The Commune', another Scandinavian film
about communal living. This one is altogether jollier; there is some funny stuff about the mores and culture of 1970s Scandinavian radicals, but not much of the nuts and bolts of communal living, or about the mechanics of how these people all came to be living together, or what strains it places on the relationships between them.

There's an outsiders' perspective thing going on, because the narrative is about a working-class woman moving to the commune after she runs away from her drunken, abusing husband - so we can see the communards through her eyes, as well as seeing her through theirs. There's also a very straight family next door for a counterpoint. I note in passing that the working class family originally live in what is supposed to be a somewhat soulless flat in a block, of the kind that most working class people in Britain would die for, and that there is no account at all of how the commune has come to be in the rather nice suburban house where it is - is it private rented? Also, there's an old, isolated man that the abusing husband meets as a result of his plumbing job, who talks about the old days when everyone was poor but lived together and were happy. I was surprised to see just how poor 1930s Swedes had been - it sounded like modern poor India.
Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, via DVD and projector - with some issues about the frame size.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Great book about what's happening in the world's cities

Excellent critical account about key developments in cities - technology, development, governance - from a great author. There were a few things that rankled a little (I got fed up with the number of people introduced as 'urban theorist' and so on), but this is a really good book. Like all the best, it acts as a gateway to much more, with links and references that are really useful. I particularly like the way it cuts through all the property developer bullshit and tells it like it is for those of us who still retain the loose distinction of citizenship of these cities. I'd have liked even more about the hot money pouring in to London, New York and so on, because that seems to shape my experience of living in my city. But that's not even a quibble. No hesitation in recommending this, and I look forward to reading more by Stephen Graham.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review of 'Miss Peregrine's home for peculiar children'

The first thing to say is that I am astonished that this film has a 12 rating. Although the subject matter (boy discovers hidden world with sympathetic children threatened by monsters) is suitable for kids, the depictions are really, really horrific - the monsters eat the children (and others') eyes, and this is depicted quite graphically. I presume that the absence of blood in makes it somehow palatable to the censors, but it's quite terrifying and stayed with me.

The scenario and the plot seem a bit garbled - it's got a time-travel component that doesn't seem particularly well thought through, with little interest in paradoxes or forking futures or whatever. There's a sort of underlying nasty Nazis thing too - the monsters are called 'hollow casts', or something like, that there is a suggestion that the grandfather who introduces the boy to all this is actually traumatized by his experiences in wartime Poland (something we are not shown), and we do see the children's home being destroyed by a bomb with a swastika painted on it. Not developed, but rather thrown away - as is the suggestion that this might be all be a hallucination caused by the boy's head-hitting accident early on in the film. Did somebody mean to make more of this and then decide not to bother or to take it out? I see that it's based on a novel that was very successful - is the plot and scenario clearer in that, or less clear in a way that makes it matter less?

It's got an interesting look to it, though considering that it's set in the 1940s it really ought to look less steampunk than it does - Miss Peregrine's dress doesn't look at all Utility, for example, but sort of cod-Victorian. Lots of nice special effects, especially the raising of a sunken ship from the sea bed. It's always nice watching Eva Green, though where did that accent come from and what was it supposed to be?

Watched on a plane to New York - my first long haul flight for several years.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review of 'Desert Dancer'

A nice enough Iran-set film about a young man who wants to dance even though it's banned by the Islamic state. He sets up a secret underground dance troupe, who rehearse in what looks like an abandoned factory or warehouse. Eventually they give a performance to a small and selected audience in the desert, hence the title. There's quite a lot about the Mousavi election campaign of 2009, which I had rather forgotten about. It's a bit long and slow, and there's not a lot of nuance - the regime are just brutal thugs, and there's not much sense that the Iranian revolution was ever about anything at all. But it has enough suspense, and some nice music and dancing.

Watched on TV via Netflix, Android phone, and Chromecast.