Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of 'The Handmaiden'

A remarkable film - lots of plot twists (helped by the fact that I hadn't read the book on which it is based, though I knew about it), fabulous to look at, lots of wonderful Korean and Japanese period and setting detail. But also remarkably sexually explicit for a mainstream film, and a lot of cruelty, sexual and otherwise. Long, but never boring.

Watched at The Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Review of "Their Finest"

A really good film - with quite a few laughs, though I wouldn't really call it a comedy. I was touched emotionally and personally by it in a way that I hadn't at all expected.

It's set in London during the blitz, and it feels very realistic. It can't do the smells of Underground shelters, but it does the texture and the sounds very well, recreating a world before synthetic textiles and materials. It rather connected me with the mindset of Brexit voters; for many people Europe must never entirely have lost the association with the place from which the BEF had to be rescued and from where the bombers came. The film does have a bit of a Brexit vibe - look at the poster.

Most of all it made me think a lot about how much trauma and anguish my mum must have gone through at this time. Her family stayed in London during the worst of the blitz - her parents didn't want the children to be evacuated because they believed it was more important for the family to keep together. Recently I've been directed to read this article about epigenetics, and I guess that part of my heritage - either genetic or psychological - is my mum's lived experience of the bombing of London. It struck me that the essence of the blitz experience was the randomness and meaningless of death - one character dies in his flat, another misses a bomb because she worked late that night. Isn't that a perfect description of the 'learned helplessness' model of depression? Has anyone else made the connection between this and the apparent epidemic of affective diseases in post-war Britain?

Normally I hate films about film-making...they strike me as over-indulgent. But I really liked this, even though a lot of the jokes and plot turn on the mechanics of making a film. Couldn't help thinking about what it must have been like to have watched a war film, about the evacuation at Dunkirk, with an audience full of people who had actually been there.

Watched in the Crouch End Arthouse Cinema at an early show on a Tuesday evening, with almost no-one in the audience.

Review of 'Brokeback Mountain'

Sad and beautiful film about two cowboys (well, shepherds really, though one of them does ride in rodeos) who discover that they love each other. They live their lives in relative misery, waiting for the little time that they spend together back on the mountain in 'fishing trips' that don't really fool anyone, least of all their wives.

It's the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I couldn't help thinking how much happier they'd have been if they'd left Wyoming/Texas and gone to San Francisco. But they can't - at least the Heath Ledger character can't, because though he's more or less disconnected from almost everyone, he is still connected to his kids and doesn't want to turn his back on them. I once had an email conversation with a secretly atheist hasid, about why he didn't leave the community that he clearly held in such contempt, and he answered in much the same terms.

Watched on the big screen at Springhill, via informal download.

Review of "Blackthorn"

A Spanish western, set in Bolivia in the 1920s, with a not-dead-after-all Butch Cassidy planning to return to the US to meet up with the son he's never known, but instead getting mixed up with a fleeing Spanish mine engineer who has committed a robbery and is now being chased by a relentless indigenous posse who look more than a little like the Pinkertons in the original Butch Cassidy film.

It's a western with a lot of shooting and horse scenes, but it's not so bad - some interesting young/old dynamics, a bit about what happens to people who spend their whole life chasing something (Stephen Rea as the Irish Pinkerton who has never believed that Butch was dead), and a decent enough twist.

Watched on TV via Chromecast and BBC iPlayer.

Review of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert"

Haven't watched since the 1980s...I remember feeling rather uncomfortable watching it then, because drag queens didn't fit with my vision of what gay men ought to be like. More than twenty years later, and we're all less prescriptive and more open about different ways of identifying, but I still didn't really enjoy the film all that much. Not much happens, the characters don't develop, the scenario of drag acts in rough little outback towns where the country audiences don't appreciate them is repetitive...and the bitchy queen jokes start to pall quite quickly. And the act is really not all that good - it's just a matter of watching the costumes really. The drag queens don't dance all that well, they don't sing at all...Also annoyed by the way the Terence Stamp character does the one thing that you are really, really supposed to not do when you break down in the desert (leave the vehicle and go off to look for help) but it turns out well. Shouldn't there at least be a 'don't try this when you break down in the desert' warning?

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via informal distribution.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review of 'Moonlight'

Not sure why this was Best Picture - a film about a gay black drug dealer's coming of age in Miami. Bits were very poignant and well done, other parts seemed boring and over-long. I had a little doze now and then. I suspect that there were lots of significant details that I just missed; both the main character, Chirone, and his mentor Juan, had the gold crown on the dashboard of their car - I had to look that one up.

Perhaps someone could explain why it's called Moonlight, too. I was clearly in a minority; everyone else who watched it with me was more touched by it than I was. I actually preferred La La Land, which most people seem to have hated.

Watched in the Common House in Springfield from a version obtained by informal distribution.

Review of 'The Big Short'

I was rather disappointed with this. The book was great - it explained complex things and unfamiliar institutions without being patronizing - and left me feeling better informed and more angry. The film didn't do that. Some of the illustrations were silly and annoying. Some things that were complicated weren't really explained - including CDSs, which were really the toxic time-bomb under the property finance market. From the film you wouldn't even learn what a short is.

Not helped by the fact that it's really hard to tell who is who - apart from the really florid Asperger-inflected character and the one with anger management issues, and the two jock kids, they all look similar. Not clear who is working for which institution, or about the conflicts of interest within the big banks.

On the plus side it did manage to show that finance isn't separate from the real world - we get to see the families whose houses are repossessed, and there is some talk about the impact on the 'real' economy.

One of the things that made me so angry reading the book was the way that the heroes - the big shorters - made a lot of money, but nothing bad happened to the people who so carelessly created the opportunity for them to do so. The big stupids lost their companies billions, and none of them are sleeping rough. I didn't get that from the film.

Watched via HDMI cable from laptop to TV, obtained via informal distribution network.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Review of Lion

A thoughtful, moving film about adoption and lost children. A little Indian boy gets lost from his family, swept in to an orphanage, and then adopted away to Australia; eventually, and improbably (but this is a real story) as a young adult he finds his way back to the village and his birth mother. The credits sequence shows the real young adult visiting his real birth mother in the company of his adoptive mother; hard not to be moved by that if you've watched the film.

Some beautiful filming, and a reminder of why I didn't actually enjoy visiting India. Hard to be comfortable amidst so much misery.

Watched on TV via cable from PC and informal distribution network.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review of Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach

Surprisingly gentle film about the life and work of Ken Loach - lots of talking heads from actors and others, scenes of the director at works, a non-chronological account of his oeuvre, some clips. Not quite a catalogue because some films were missing (well, if there was a mention of Carla's Song I missed it) but pretty thorough, including some I'd never heard of - Black Jack, for example.

I'd forgotten, if I'd ever known, that Loach was responsible for The Big Flame, a Liverpool film that inspired the inception of the 'Libertarian Marxist' organisation that I hung around in the early 1980s.

There's quite a long section on the 'Perdition' affair, and no sign that anyone learned anything from it. At the time I rather uncomfortably assumed that people who I otherwise admired were contaminated with anti-semitism. I have a rather more nuanced view now, not least because of a rather good documentary about the Kastner affair on which Perdition, and the earlier right wing Zionist 'Perfidy', were based. But I still feel uncomfortable about the stance and the tone of Jim Allen's diatribe against Zionism.

A few observations: Loach appears to feel no irony at being an engaged Marxist on the side of the really poor and wretched, and being lauded by the luvvies at Cannes; and the film has an odd slip into regular luvvie bio-pic with an account of his early career as an actor, complete with dressing-room shots etc. And didn't everyone smoke a lot!

Watched at the Landsdowne Film Club in Stroud.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Stroud Red Band set list

 The Red Flag
Kasatchok
Down by the Riverside
Power in a Union
African Market Place  
La Cucaracha 
Solidarity Forever 
Bandiera Rossa
Bella Ciao 
The Homecoming 
The Internationale
Di Shvue






Monday, March 06, 2017

Review of 'La La Land'

Everybody has been so down on this that I was quite surprised by how much it touched me. I think sometimes how a film affects the viewer says more about the latter than the former. Set in Hollywood, this was about staying true to your dreams, and what happens when you do/don't. It plays around with narrative quite a lot - we get to see a fantasy of an alternative ending, which I think is a way of reminding us that the narrative of the film itself is not necessarily to be taken at face value. The too-bright colours in the opening sequence, and the early scenes with the girls in the flat, seem to me to be indicating that this is more or less fantasy. It rather reminded me of 'Mullholland Drive' without the horror, and perhaps 'The Day of the Locust' too.

It's a film about dreams, but maybe the characters don't stay true to their dreams, and maybe it isn't so important to do that. I think that's the thing that chimed with me at this moment - what if I was able to pursue my own dreams? Is it really what I want to do, or just a thought to distract me from what I am doing at the moment?

Seb (Ryan Gosling's character) has a dream of having his own Jazz club that will be really true to the spirit of the music, but he seems to abandon the dream for a steady job playing in a band that gets recording and touring contracts. It isn't his dream...but maybe the dream is just something you need to help you get through the drudgery of everyday life (earlier, he's a jobbing musician playing stuff that he really despises). And Emily Stone's character almost gives up on her dream of being an actor, and it's only his persistence in dragging her back to one more audition that makes it come true.

I note in passing that the music isn't great, but it's not awful either - I can still remember at least some of the tunes.

Watched on a tablet on train.


Review of 'The Brothers Grimm'

I've been watching this on an off for a while, without quite getting round to finishing it. I finally watched the last half on a train, watching it on a tablet. Considering the small size, it was visually quite stunning - Terry Gilliam at his best. The plot is nonsense, of course - a sort of fairy tale about fairy tales - but the acting isn't too bad and it carries you along. Nice to see Lena Headey playing someone other than Cersei Lannister, and she's quite good. And Jonathan Pryce as the French General is also very good.

A bit more horror than I was expecting; perhaps I am too easily upset by depictions of children losing their eyes, though surely everyone thinks that's upsetting...

There's actually a bit of seriousness in the way it represents the origins of German conservative romanticism as a response to the French invasion. I note in passing that the German village, which is beautifully depicted, looks more Slavic than German, as does the depiction of peasant culture - I'd swear they are dancing to Klezmer at the end rather than something that feels German. Still, whatever.


Review of 'Frida'

Rewatched this, partly to get some interior decoration ideas for our new flat, which I'd like to Mexi-theme. I'd quite enjoyed it the first time round; the second time it was watchable enough, and visually interesting - I quite liked the way it managed to cinematically represent some of Frida Kahlo's pictures.

But I was aware of how little attention it actually gave to the politics. We see that Diego Rivera is a bit of a radical, and that he enjoys pissing off the man as well as sleeping with lots of women, but there's no sense that the politics is actually important to him or to Frida. We see a few seconds of demonstration footage, but there isn't any sense that Mexico was a ferment of genuine revolutionary fervour at this time, or that there was a real civil war going on. Trotksy is a lovely old bloke, but not a very convincing revolutionary, and there is similarly no sense that in giving him refuge the Cardenas government was making a very definite political commitment. It wouldn't have hurt to have given some sight of how huge his funeral procession was.

Not a bad film, but not a great one.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, from a legitimate DVD,

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.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Review of 'In a World'

An enjoyable comedy-drama, with some rom-com elements. It's set in the world of voice-over artists, who naturally have their own hierarchy, awards and so on. The plot (and sub-plots) is actually quite complicated - my son joined us half-way through and trying to catch him up on everything that was going on and all the relationships between the characters proved too difficult. It's a bit reminiscent of those Italian comic operas, where both audience and characters don't really know what is going on or even who is who.

It's rather well done, with some good creepy characters; Geena Davis is particularly good as the Big Producer of The Amazonian Games, a dystopian fantasy franchise that pits leather-clad women against mutant cloned neanderthals on post-apocalyptic earth; sadly, this doesn't actually exist, though it should.

Watched on our TV via legitimate Netflix subscription.