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 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.