Monday, September 11, 2017

Review of 'Arrival'

A rather good science fiction movie, with most of the emphasis on plot and character rather than special effects. It's about the difficulties posed by first contact with a clearly superior species...and there is a time-travel/time-perception dimension to it that is really rather well done. Some of the early parts linger a bit on the military preparations, which are supposed to be tense but I found a bit slow, but this is more than made up for by an intellectual female lead who doesn't have to do some special 'female' version of clever - she is just cleverer than most of the male characters around her. Extra points too for an internationalist dimension (humans need to overcome their national differences to solve a big problem) and for acknowledging the value of expertise rather than celebrating some ordinary guy who just happens to...

And extra points too for at least mentioning, and even trying to explain, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which actually becomes an important plot element. Don't remember hearing about that since my undergraduate days, so hooray.

Watched on TV via Chromecast, having been obtained via informal distribution network.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of 'The Invention of the Land of Israel'

An interesting meander through some of the back alleys of Jewish, Zionist, and of course Palestine history. Of course it's political in content and intent, and Sand makes what seems to me to be a good case that the Zionist movement took the Jews' vague, spiritual and liturgical affinity for a distant land and turned it into a political instrument. I suspect that his selection of evidence (like everyone's) is partial, and that there will be pro-Zionist scholars who will point to other examples that appear to contradict his argument. I'm inclined to be convinced, so I find his argument persuasive and well documented; and his opposition to Zionism is nuanced and intelligent, and doesn't call for a return to some earlier day 'before the Zionist invasion'.

Nevertheless, as with his other book 'The Invention of the Jewish People', there are some things I didn't much like. Here I think he over-emphasises the ethical and humanist dimension of religious Jews' opposition to Zionism. Yes, the ultra-orthodox of various stripes were opposed to Zionism, just as they were opposed to emancipation and the ending of ghettos, and every other aspect of modern life. And they were opposed to a modern, political variant of Jewish nationalism, but they were most still believers in various ghastly ideas about Jewish superiority.

And I think his characterisation of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism could have been different. Apologists for Zionism are fond of saying that it's a nationalism like others, but it's always been a weird nationalism. I can't think of many other variants that were so uninterested in the folk-culture of the people which they intended to make into a national entity. In that sense perhaps Zionism's 'affinity' for an idealised 'ur-nation' of Hebrews as distinct from actually existing Jews is like the religious Jews' affinity for an idealised, spiritualized 'Land of Israel' that can be a focus of longing devoid of any geographical or practical reality.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Review of 'Man Up'

A surprisingly enjoyable rom-com, with lots of good British character actors. Some visual and physical comedy, and also great dialogue. Nothing special to look at but witty and fun, with nice details that confirm this is twenty-first century London. Simon Pegg acts and is involved with the production - not always a good sign, but this is one of his best. Rory Kinnear is great as the creepy old school friend, and Olivia Williams is good as the ex-wife too. A really good laugh, I thought.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via Chromecast.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of The Intern

A gentle comedy about...well, work, really. Robert de Niro plays retired Ben, whose life is meaningless without something useful to do, so he applies for and gets a role in Anne Hathaway's company, which has decided to advertise for senior interns (yes, seniors as interns) as a sort of community outreach thing. The film avoids the obvious jokes about old people not being able to understand technology or the new world of work - Ben is superbly adaptable - and instead mainly focuses on Anne Hathaway as the CEO neglecting her home life to pursue her business goals. Which, the film says, is more or less the right thing to do, because the business is her dream.

Quite fun to watch, and some nice jokes about the old guy giving the young dudes good advice about life, relationships and grooming. Not sure about the overall message, but it's only a film.

Watched on DVD at my mum's flat, my mother-in-law having burned it on to a disc from a TV showing. That's old school.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of 'Hidden Figures'

A nice anti-racist film, about three black women mathematicians who contributed to the space program despite all the obstacles put in their way. Very big on the patriotic dimension - so how it emphasises racism and sexism detracted from achieving the national objective of beating the Commies in space, and how the realisation of this gradually dawns on the buzzcut types running NASA. But very good on the little observations about how racism (and to a lesser extent sexism) are embodied in multiple experiences of everyday life, from segregated bathrooms and coffee pots to forms of address. Of course, black people know this already.

I rather thought Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) stole the show as the obnoxious,  condescending racist chief engineer Paul Stafford - perhaps because he is able to draw on all of the awkwardness and snarkiness of the Sheldon character.

Watched via Chromestream and Chromecast from my Ubuntu laptop - I think the first time that I made this work - having first obtained the film via an informal distribution network.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of 'The Duke of Burgundy'

A sad film about sex and sexuality. It's a story about two middle-aged lesbians, one of whom is  obsessed by sadomasochistic fantasies and requires the other to act out a highly specified script (literally, a script) of humiliation and degradation. The irony, which is the essential irony of all BDSM relationships, is that it's the submissive who is in control. The apparently dominant one just wants to wear warm, cozy flannel pyjamas and have a nice cuddle, but instead has to put on fantasy clothing (lots of expensive lingerie, credited in the film) and high heels to gratify the submissive one. The film illustrates this much better than any other discussion of the same point that I have seen.

They genuinely love each other, but the love is eaten up and destroyed by the 'submissive'partner's need to turn every act of intimacy into theatre. She more or less forces the 'dominant' partner to perform acts that she clearly finds horrible, including pissing in the other's mouth and locking her into a trunk at night. There is a strange, symbolic sub-text in that both the women, and many others in the neighbourhood, are lepidopterists, and there is a lot of footage of butterflies and moths. The Duke of Burgundy of the title is a butterfly.

The film looks beautiful, though not at all sexually arousing; it's filmed in Hungary, and the countryside is at once ravishing and unfamiliar. There are some weird  scenes in the local butterfly collectors institute (one of which features some panning shots where some members of the audience are manikins), and the credits include one for perfume.

Watched via Chromestream from my linux laptop and Chromecast, the film having been sourced from an informal distribution network.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Review of 'The Big Sick'

Not as bad as Hadley Freeman made it out to be (I really didn't get those romance of the shiksa vibes that she detected in this), but not a brilliant film either. The first third seems hurried and badly edited, the middle third is strongly reminiscent of 'While You Were Sleeping', and the last third is mainstream rom-com breaking-up/making-up stuff.

One personal note, though. When the hero is leaving home to move to New York, near the end, he hugs his dad, and suddenly I had the most powerful recollection of hugging my own dad (who looked a bit like the dad in the film) and the way that he smelled, like I was actually smelling him. I've had a few more smell-recollections since, one of the smell of my dad's shop, which was mainly of Bakelite and old kinds of plastic. Go figure,  as they say.

Watched at the Everyman in Muswell Hill.

"Into the Unknown" at the Barbiican

I went to this exhibition. Some of the exhibits were a bit dull - some old books in glass cases. And quite a lot were editions that I'd actually owned at some point. Displays of old futures, on cigarette cards and advertisements and posters...the sort of thing that would be 'retro-futurist', except that at the time it was made it was just...futurist; it has to be knowing to be retro-futurist, doesn't it?

There were some physical objects...models of Jules Verne things like a Nautilus and a balloon, some maquettes and props from films, none of which really grabbed me, though I rather liked some of the things from eXistenZ, which I've always though was rather under-rated.

The best bit was really the screens displaying clips from films...the mainstream ones like 'Close Encounters' and 'Back to the Future' and 'The Day after Tomorrow', but also some that I'd never heard of, like Afronauts, and Pumzi, the Invisible Cities series...and High Rise and Dark City...and Astro Black. All of these looked really interesting, and some are short and available on YouTube or somewhere else online.

The last item in the exhibition is a showing of 'In the Future they ate from the finest porcelain'. This was striking, but left me feeling uncomfortable. It's a film by a Palestinian woman about archaeology and politics. It doesn't mention Israel or Palestine or Zionism, but it's clearly about the way that Israel uses archaeology as part of an ideological justification for the its version of essentialist Jewish nationalism. It's cleverly made, and beautiful to watch and listen to. But it does explicitly argue that the people it refers to as 'our rulers' have invented their own historic connection to the land, so as to deny that of the suffering indigenous people. There is a school of thought in Palestinian nationalism, and sometimes its supporters, that really does deny that there ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and so on.

And I think that's unnecessary, and offensive. I'm not an expert on the status of the archaeological evidence one way or another, but it strikes me as a stupid and destructive line of argument, like the dreary debates I remember as to whether Jews constituted a nation - in which Stalin's definition usually cropped up.

I'm quite sympathetic to Shlomo Sand's arguments that the 'Jewish People' and 'The Land of Israel' are historical constructions, as long it's understood that the Jewish people is 'invented' in the same sense that other peoples are. Similarly, it's one thing to refer to the Holocaust as part of the founding 'myth' of the State of Israel, and another to suggest that the Holocaust is a myth in the sense of not being part of actual history. The concept of 'fake news', somehow counterposed to 'real news', belongs here too.

There is a bigger issue here, which someone else is probably thinking about even now. Liberal and progressive intellectuals have spent years picking away at what we might think of as 'realist' epistemology, pointing out the way that all kinds of knowledge - science, history, medicine - are not simply revealed but are constructed. And we've ended up not with a population that engages critically and wisely with knowledge, but with Trump and Farage and Gove, and the climate change deniers...and the Moon landing deniers...Where does this go? It's not sustainable to say that non-realist epistemology is only for us clever people, and the rest have to just trust in the experts.

More to follow about this, I think.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of 'The Circle'

Not time well spent, this one. I really liked the book, which seemed to be a rather good satire on life at Google but also on the implications of social media for our civilisation. It came at a rather significant time for me; I read it just before I 'joined' Gartner, and the fictional culture of The Circle went some way towards preparing me for the highly metric-driven culture of my new employer.

But the film is a bit lame. In the book Mae's naivety is sort of picaresque, and sort of believable. In the film, seeing it performed by an actual human, it's not - she's too stupid to live, or at least to thrive as she does. Some of the elements that I most liked in the book (like the importance of her time away kayaking by herself, which is here turned into just a sucker's lesson about the value of 24-hour 'safety' surveillance) are not really included. And the denouement is different from the book, and it's ambiguous but not in a good way. Are we, the audience, still supposed to believe in the redeeming power of technology to make the world a better place, once it's in the right hands and the evil bad guys are exposed to the same transparency they want to impose on everyone else? I think we are.

Watched via Netflix and Chromecast. Can't remember the last time I watched a good film from Netflix.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Connected bikes shed new light on the smart city

Just over a year ago I wrote about See.Sensea Northern Ireland-based start-up making and selling smart connected bicycle lights. The lights were pretty cool in themselves (the cyclists in my family tried one) but the really clever thing was the way in which the company was planning to make use of the data from sensors in the lights, recognising that it was now in the urban data business.

I’m pleased to be able to say that the company is still progressing along this track. This week it announced two new trials with smart city programmes – one in Dublin, where it’s one of four smart cycling pilots rolled out in the run-up to the city’s hosting the global cycling congress Velo City in 2019, and one in Manchester, where the data is being delivered to the CityVerve smart city hub so that it can be accessed and exploited by the wider community of developers.

Both pilots involve the cities’ cycling communities, and both offer the See.Sense ICON light at a highly subsidised price in return for users agreeing to share their sensor data.

These are still early days. Various use cases are being discussed (including one of my favourites, using the lights to gather crowdsourced data on surface quality) but none have been definitively adopted. There’s no commercial model either, so no sign of how See.Sense might move towards a business that isn’t just based on hardware sales. But it’s promising, and a coupe of visible signs that the value of the company’s approach is being recognised more widely.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of 'The Zero Marginal Cost Society' by Jeremy Rifkin

An interesting book with occasional flashes of brilliance - or at least brilliant exposition. It covers much of the same ground as Paul Mason's Post-Capitalism and Kevin Carson's 'The  Homebrew Industrial Revolution' - but in a mode that's less explicitly political and more oriented towards a mainstream business/economics audience. I can't help thinking that in writing this he had one eye on MBA reading lists and future consulting opportunities.

Whereas Mason, and Carson in a different sort of way, appreciate that the tendency of capitalism to reduce the cost of making stuff is a contradiction that can be resolved in a number of ways (not all of them with happy endings), Rifkin treats it as an inevitable 'trend' that's inherent in the logic of technological advance, and more or less inevitably leads to a "sustainable cornucopia" (one of the chapter titles).

On the other hand Mason's analysis is situated within some esoteric debates within the history of Marxism that most normal people don't want to know about, and Carson links his very detailed and careful analysis within the context of 'freed market' anarchism and some equally questionable optimism about decentralised modes of political organising that seem to me to be already trashed by recent history.

Rifkin is a good clear writer, and his heart is in the right place. He knows that more stuff doesn't make us more happy, and that the quest for happiness through stuff is trashing the planet. Still, this seems oddly dated for a book published in 2014. There's no Uber, no Amazon Mechanical Turk, no Deliveroo - the whole idea of Platform Capitalism is unacknowledged even as a possibility.  Bitcoin gets one paragraph and the Blockchain not a mention; so he's soppy about community currencies, most of which have turned out to be disappointments, and the relationship between technology and hyper-capitalism is also not discussed. He's relentlessly upbeat about the sharing economy with no understanding of the potential for a dark side, and apparently no thoughts as to why mainstream corporations are so excited about the Internet of Things or their plans for 'servitization'.

And oddly nothing about the potential for surveillance or data harvesting...was there really no-one talking about that as recently as 2014?

This is definitely worth a read, but it needs to be read in conjunction with Peter Frase's Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, which sketches out alternative, less benign future scenarios. Perhaps also alongside "Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life", which is a sort of mirror-image dystopian version of the same developments, without much acknowledgement of the liberatory potential of the technology that is arriving.

Final thought; I can't help mentioning the irony that I read this book in a dead-tree version that would have cost me £17 if I hadn't borrowed it from a friend.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review of 'The Mummy'

Probably the worst film I have ever seen - a pointless remake that wastes some box-office names in a meaningless confused hotch-potch without a proper plot or even the most basic sense of geography. Lots of bangs and crashes, and life-sucking demons, but nothing coherent. Utter rubbish. Even Tom Cruise deserves better than this.

Watched in the 'Movie Lounge' of Cap Finisterre, a Brittany Ferries ship crossing from Bilbao to Portsmouth. I watched it because it  passed two hours that otherwise would have been spent looking at grey sea. As it turned out that would have been more enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Crowdfunding an arrangement for the Stroud Red Band

Hi All,

I would like the Stroud Red Band to have the song of the Jewish Partisans, 'Zog Nit Keynmol', in its repertoire. That means we need an arrangement for the particular set of instruments that we have in the band; the London Big Red Band has the same set of parts, so they will be able to use this arrangement too, and any other band that we make it available to.

We already had Di Shvue, a famous Yiddish socialist song, arranged for us, by a nice composer-arranger called Lewis Wolstanholme. We'd like to get him to do this arrangement, and he's going to charge £60 - so this is a very small crowdfunding exercise. If it works we can get some other tunes re-arranged for the band.

If a few friends of the band, or people interested in the history that the song represents, would kick in £5 we will be there in no time! Just go to this crowdfunding page and make a small donation.

Thanks,

Comrade Jezza

Review of 'A Bigger Splash'

A film about bored rich people (and obnoxious rich people, at that) doing nothing very much in beautiful locations, I ought to have hated it - but it was actually very good. Tilda Swinton (who I could watch reading the phone directory) is a rock start who has had vocal surgery and is resting on a beautiful island near Sicily, with her boyfriend who is a 'documentary film-maker', only he doesn't actually make any films...and along comes Harry, her former lover, with his recently discovered twenty-something daughter in tow. Harry moves straight into the villa and proceeds to be mind-numbingly vile to everyone, and this continues for three quarters of the film. It sounds awful, but it's so well done that it's impossible to stop watching. It's played out against the background of the first stage of the refugee crisis in the Meditterranean, so there is a counterpoint to the obnoxious rich people; and there is a plot development that is worth leaving as a surprise - I won't spoilt it here. But this film is definitely worth watching.

I watched on the TV via my PC and Chromecast, which I finally got to work from Ubuntu by downloading proper Chrome rather than the open-source Chromium alternative. I don't feel great about that, but all the other work-arounds didn't actually work.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of 'Istanbul'

A melancholy sort of autobiographical account of the city, interspersed with historical interludes but essentially the history of the author and what it felt to grow up in Istanbul in the 1950s and 1960s. Lots of engagement with the very mixed legacy of Turkish Republican Nationalism, in a way that few other Turkish people seem to want to do; as in 'Snow', he is not a religious fundamentalist but seems to have a certain sympathy for the people that are simple conservative Muslims. He wallows in the city's decay in a way that is a bit like ruin porn, but tied into a certain melancholy awareness that it has lots its role as the capital at the centre of the multinational, two-continents Ottoman empire. Bits of the book put me to sleep, but in other places it was utterly compelling.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of ' The Professor and the Madman'

I was a speccy, nerdy kid who spent his early childhood lunch-breaks reading from the dictionary, so I've always loved lexicography and etymology. I spent my first ever employee bonus on buying the CD-ROM of the OED...I still have it, though I assume the 3.5" floppy that contains the application is not much use any more.

This book is like a peek under the hood as to how dictionaries get made, with the additional bonus of a genuinely interesting human drama. Lots of period atmosphere, some of it of the implausible and unknowable detail kind; that would be fine as part of the scenario for a TV drama-doc...in fact, this could make a really nice one.

Review of 'The Doomsday Vault'

This book is trash - or at least pulp - but in the best possible way. This is the most enjoyable steampunk novel, with giant steam-powered fighting robots, clockwork automatons, dirigibles...lots of fun. From time to time I began to suspect that there were just too many conceits in it (a 'clockwork plague' that turns most people into zombies but also creates geniuses who are responsible for a ferment of technological development. The plot is preposterous but in a good way, and I rather liked the two main characters. The reading equivalent of junk food, but a guilty pleasure - I will try not to read the others in the series, but I may well succumb.

Pleased to discover that the author is really called Steven Harper Piziks, and that he has a website. I may be forced to write to him.

Review of 'My Cousin Rachel'

Period drama, nicely made with lots of detail that looks well researched. I couldn't tell exactly when it was supposed to be set, which bothered me. There was a Christmas tree in one scene, which puts it some time after 1840, but there don't seem to be any railways - everyone travels by coach. So I guess that makes it the 1840s...?

Relatively faithful to the book, from what I can understand, though I am not sure how ambiguous the ending is in that - here I was still left wondering whether Rachel was, or was not, a murderer who is trying to poison the central male character. Very dark, but good. I must read the book.

Watched at the Vue in Stroud, where the air conditioning was one of the main benefits.

Review of 'Little Men'

A sad film about two boys growing up in Brooklyn whose families are thrown into contact, and then into conflict, because of a legacy - the shop in which one boy's mother runs her business, left to the other boy's family in the grandfather's will. The mother hasn't been paying a full commercial rent and can't afford to, the two families handle it badly, and the boys try to maintain their friendship in the face of this but ultimately fail. The saddest thing about it is that one boy is a marked introvert, and the other (more sociable) boy is the only person he's ever really been friends with - and in the film's epilogue he is shown as a rather sad and lonely character. So the widely held belief that in the end we get over break-ups and separations is shown to be false - the other boy really was special to him in a way that no-one else is ever going to be.

A really good film with a strong story and good characters.

Watched in the middle floor at Springhill via laptop and projector.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review of 'Eagle Huntress'


Well, everyone loved this, but I was a bit bored. Maybe I was tired, but I kept falling asleep so I missed bits. I didn't see where the girl who the film's about had to deal with the hostility evoked by her contesting an age-old tradition that only men could hunt with eagles. Actually most people in Mongolia seemed really supportive, though there were a few funny expressions on the faces of the grand old men of eagle hunting. There didn't seem to be any resistance at all to her participating in the eagle hunting contest, even though no women had ever participated before (maybe I missed that while I was asleep).

None of her fellow schoolgirls are at all interested in learning to hunt, so this is more a plucky individual triumph than a feminist film. The men in her family, and her mum, are all really supportive.

Lots of beautiful shots of the Altai mountains, with great aerial photography. But it is about hunting foxes...funny how the audience is all rooting for the girl and the eagle, rather than the fox, whereas if it was being hunted by hounds in the English countryside we'd all be on the side of the fox.

Watched at Lansdowne film club.


Review of 'Beauty and the Beast' (2017)

Pretty much a live action remake of the earlier Disney cartoon, with CGI used to provide the spellbound characters turned into household objects. A mild feminist message (Beauty likes to read books even though she's a girl) but other than that it's straightforward fairy tale romance. It's supposed to be pro-diversity in that there is a gay character, though he's more fay than gay - it's not exactly as if he is depicted having a same-sex relationship, he just talks and gestures in a 'gay' way. Also quite a few of the servants who have been enchanted into household objects turn out to have been black people when they are dis-enchanted back into servants, and that's obviously pro-diversity too; and Emma Thompson's teapot character speaks in a ghastly mockney accent, so that's a bit more diversity for you.

Still, it was mainly a sweet film, with some beautiful shots of the frozen enchanted castle, and some good scary wolves in the forest scenes. I also quite liked it when the villagers, whipped up by the evil Gaston, prepared to storm the Beast's castle, but of course they are turned back by the brave servants/household objects. Funny how we are never meant to identify with castle-stormers in movies.

 If anyone knows of any films where the peasants storming a castle are (a) the goodies and (b) successful then please let me know.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, obtained via informal distribution.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review of "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer"

A strange, uncomfortable film. It's a US-Israeli collaboration, but as I watched it I couldn't help thinking that this was the sort of feature film that anti-semitic conspiracy theorists would make if they had any sophistication. Richard Gere plays Norman, a sort of luftmensch lobbyist. He's not exactly shabby, but he manages to convey that impression. He has no background, no context, no family or friends - just his work as a fixer, brokering his tenuous relationships for cash and influence. He strikes up a relationship with a rising Israeli politician by buying him an expensive pair of shoes, and then uses that relationship to develop more links to business people. It's pretty clear that what he is doing is both immoral and illegal, but he has no compunction about it, though he does have a very strong sense of loyalty to the people in the network of relationships - most of all to the Israeli politician, who ends up becoming a peace-oriented Prime Minister whose enemies use his connections to the fixer as the basis for accusations of corruption.

There are several scenes of Norman in a synagogue, listening to a choir or talking the rabbi - about donations and benefactors, of course. There's something unattractive about this, though it's hard to put a finger on what it is. The film ends with Norman demonstrating that he has his own moral code of loyalty (to his friends, to Judaism and Israel) and remains true to it, even it's not the same as everyone else's. It's also made clear that he isn't motivated by personal gain or wealth for himself, which he seems not to have or want.

It's well acted and good to look at it, and interesting - but not what I could call enjoyable.

Watched at the Phoenix in East Finchley at what seems to have been a special showing - no ads, no trailers, and I don't think the film is on general release.

Review of "Twelve Monkeys"

Re-watched after several years...I thought I'd have more time to focus on the look of it, because I wouldn't need to follow the rather confusing plot so carefully. But in fact I'd forgotten a lot of the plot, and could follow it more carefully. Even so I sort of missed the significance of one of the plot twists, and Ruth had to explain it to me.

This is probably one of the best films that Terry Gilliam has ever made (probably Bruce Willis's best film ever too). The look of it is great (I noticed in the credits that the design of the interrogation room is based on the work of American architect Lebbeus Woods, who I had never heard of. There is a lot of 'ruin porn' - not only in the future-set scenes, which are supposed to be after an apocalyptic disaster, but also in the scenes set in the 1990s.

Unlike in some other Gilliam movies, there are proper characters, with proper relationships between them, and a well-developed story with pace that stays the length of the film. Surprising that it wasn't based on a book, but instead was a sort of homage to La Jetée, a short (28 minute) French film that miraculously manages to cover much of the same plot within the time constraint.

Watched in the middle floor at Springhill, via an informal streaming site rather than my usual informal distribution network.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Review of 'Anomalisa'

A creepy, uncomfortable film about a man crushed by the sheer mundane-ness of his life. It's an animated film, and the animation is more like caricature than an attempt to look either realistic or cute. The characters move clumsily, and the proportions of their bodies aren't quite right. This emphasises the awkwardness of the people and the situations in which they find themselves.

The central character is voiced by David Thewlis, as an Englishman who has long lived in LA - he's an expert and motivational speaker in customer service, and is in Cincinnati  to give a talk. The faux-glamour of the business hotel, the meaninglessness of his presentation, the depressing taxi ride from airport to hotel - it's all captured perfectly. There's also the most awkward, unbearable sex scene, and some horror nightmare scenes in the basement of the hotel.

Not everyone liked this film, but I thought it was really evocative and affecting.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via a laptop and informal distribution.

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 clichés – 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.