Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review of “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Pleasant romcom with some nice characters and a few good jokes – or rather one good one, developed to the full. A group of women set up a book group to read the works of Jane Austen, and find themselves slipping into Austen-esque roles and situations – the more so since they have recruited a young cool dude to join the group and read Austen with them, even though he’s a science fiction fan. If you can swallow that the film is nice.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review of Brasslands

I've been meaning to watch this for ages, as compensation for deciding not to go to the Guca festival itself (Ruth decidedly lukewarm, and the idea of trying to take trains to the migrant crisis frontline somehow seems both unkind and potential uncomfortable).

Watching the film I feel better about the decision. Guca looks like a pissed-up version of the nastiest English funfair you can imagine, with lots of beer tents, burger vans and hog roasts, only with a huge arena and main stage for some of the best music on the planet. Serbian culture, at least as represented here, is not all that attractive to an outsider – it’s about ethnic nationalism, Orthodox religion, and the consumption of vast quantities of pork and booze. There are pictures of saints and military heroes, including Radovan Karadzic. Not much sign of Yugo-nostalgia, lots of flags with double-headed eagles.

And yet the music is so, so wonderful – a bit like klezmer but with more dynamic and tonal variation, and with fabulous infectious percussion rhythms. The film follows a New York group that plays Serbian music even though none of them are of Serbian or Slavic extraction – quite a few are obviously Jewish; they are captivated by the music but not unreflective about the culture from which it comes, including the fact they are the only band with women musicians. It also follows two Serbian bands vying for the ‘best band’ prize; these are characterized by the Serbs as a ‘black’ band – meaning it’s from the South and seems to mainly include Roma players, and a ‘white’ band – paler, beefier crop-haired men. There’s a bit of discussion about how the music of the two streams differs. The ‘black’ band also needs to play at the tables of the beer tents for money.

A good, thoughtful music documentary – I'm only sorry there wasn't more concert footage.

Review of Pitch Perfect

A better than average American college movie, with some romcom and some buddy-movie elements. Too-cool girl goes to college (she wants to move to LA and pursue her career as a DJ/music producer, but college-professor dad gets free tuition for his kids and won’t let her waste it), is too cool to join the girls’ a capella singing group but is forced to give everything a go by the dad, ends up liking it and finding true love with the slightly nerdy boy from the rival boys’ singing group. Quite a few good visual and verbal jokes – I especially liked Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy. Also some barf jokes, and some implausible singing scenes, but overall much more enjoyable than I expected.

I watched this as it was broadcast on Film4; looking it up I was mildly pleased to discover that there’s a sequel.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review of "Star Wars: the force awaken"

Went to see this yesterday, with my sons, their friend, and my nephew - all in their twenties. We watched it at an Imax cinema in 3D, and we were seated in row B - almost at the front, and too close to the screen for comfort really. The 3D effects were occasionally interesting (mainly in the opening graphics) but were often just a bit uncomfortable - most of the close-up head-shots looked out of focus.

The film itself had all the qualities of a pantomime; familiar characters doing familiar things, in exactly the way that the audience expected. Perhaps the predictability is part of the charm, though it didn't do much for me. Lots of it looked very much like the first film, and their were reprises from some of the others too - what is it with this franchise and Oedipal conflicts?

Funny how the bad guys keep re-inventing themselves with new evil names, but don't do anything about their design - the stormtroopers still look the same, the uniforms on the bridge of the death star are the same - oh, and they don't even bother to fix the design flaws on the death star that makes it so vulnerable to attack by silly lighter X-wing fighters with minuscule bombs.

We had the bar scene, the fight on the high gantry, the bit were the goodies are taken prisoner on the death star (they escaped so quickly I missed the whole prisoner episode while rooting around for some popcorn).

The action was diverting, but the plot was laughable and the characters not very interesting. The locations were more interesting than the special effects. I'm glad I went because it's a cultural phenomenon, and I miss out on most of those, but it was, in the words of Adam Leach, "a bit shit".

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review of 'Mary Poppins'

Watched for the first time in many years, via a laptop, VGA cable, and projector, on the big screen in the Common House at Springhill Cohousing; the film was obtained via an informal distribution system.

I don't think I ever watched this with my own kids (not the sort of thing that they would have liked at any point, I think) so it was the first time I'd seen it since I was about six. I remembered being really scared at the part where the children run away in the City of London, and seeing it again I still understood why. Remarkable to see the depiction of alleyways and courts, all done - like the roofscape scenes - without CGI.

I'm sure someone has done a critical analysis of the film, which I think is about the emergence of new models of family - the father and mother are depicted as wrongly directed towards the outside world (he to his career, her to her involvement in the Suffragette movement), and must learn that they should be focused instead on the inner life of the family and the care of their children. The happy ending is the father being happy to be sacked from his job at the bank, and the mother giving up her Suffragette sash so that it can be used as a tail for the children's kite. And then the father gets made a partner at the bank (which comes to him because he doesn't care about it any more), though the mother doesn't achieve women's suffrage as part of the same happy ending.

Review of 'Still Alice"

I watched this on our TV, via Chromecast and Netflix. It's a very well made film, but I found it really upsetting. It's about a case of early onset Alzheimer's in an intelligent, ambitious, driven 50-year old woman academic. Seeing her too-rapid degeneration, of which she is only too aware, is very painful to watch. Julianne Moore plays the part very well. The confusion, the repetition - especially of questions - reminded me of my dad's degeneration, and reminded me too that I was not as kind as I should have been. The film depicts the impact on the family too, who all try to do their best but also want to get on with their own lives, even as Alice realizes that her life as the person she is, is coming to an end. Unbearable.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'

I didn't like this very much. Rather like Harold, I felt compelled to finish what I'd started, but it was really a hard slog. There were parts that I liked, and I didn't feel able to give up, but I couldn't say the experience was enjoyable.

That's partly because it touches on subjects that are uncomfortable. I'm aware that as a bloke I am inclined to avoid books that are emotionally difficult in favour of those with intellectually interesting subject matter, evocative atmospheres or complex plots that are like puzzles. I don't often read things that deal with difficult feelings, particularly feelings about stuff that is difficult for me personally - and this has lots of that. Death of loved ones, ageing and dementia, relationships between fathers and sons, love between partners, suppressed anger at work...so some of my discomfort in reading the book might have been about that.

But it's uncomfortable in another way too. Like lots of 'walking across England' books (mainly non-fiction) this is a state of the nation book, and Rachel Joyce looks and England and doesn't much like what she sees. A lot of the time it felt like sneering to me. Part of the point of the main character is that he is emotionally constipated, that he feels much but does not express it or deal with it. But that's overlaid with the idea that this is function of his lower-middle-class outlook and tastes. It seems to me to come from the same place that once found ceramic flying ducks on a sitting-room wall to be screamingly funny, before they became ironic and thus a signifier of good (i.e. metropolitan) taste. The author is mainly sympathetic to 'ordinary' people, but I can't help thinking that she finds their tastes both sad and funny, and that we are meant to do the same.

And some of the plot devices are frankly clunky. I might have let them go if I was enjoying it anyway but I wasn't, so they were annoying. Half the time Harold is emotionally illiterate, and then he sits down and writes a long and heartfelt letter to a virtual stranger (the girl in the garage) that ties up the various loose plot ends that haven't been explicitly revealed. And the girl then takes the letter to show it to Harold's wife. I know it's fiction, but still.

Review of 'The Crusades: a very short introduction'

Very disappointed with this, and I think it is part of a general trend with the 'very short introduction' series - they are often not introductions at all. The language of this is tortured and unsuitable for a general reader who isn't used to the funny way academics write for each other. It assumes a lot of knowledge. I think it's partial too. That might seem odd in the context of a book about the Crusades, but as the author himself points out, they are a live issue now. The book 'The Crusades through Arab Eyes' doesn't make it into the bibliography, and neither does that perspective, though we hear that the Outremer lords weren't any worse than their Turkish equivalents. There is some interesting stuff about the doctrine of Holy War and Just War, and its origins in the Old Testament and Roman Law.

I note in passing that he thinks the Crusades left no permanent legacy in the region apart from the monumental - the various castles. I'm no expert but I wonder if that is true in terms of the genetics of the Palestinian population (quite a few blue-eyed Palestinians) or the practices of the local Christians.

Review of 'Death at the Blue Elephant'

Janeen Webb is a good writer with a wild imagination. That's my conclusion after reading the whole collection - but I was tempted to give up after the first few stories, which I didn't really enjoy. But I pressed on, and the later ones are really, really good. I especially liked 'Niagra Falling', which is set in a future Japan-dominated world, and 'The Fire Eater's Tale', both co-written with Jack Dann. I'll look out for more by the author, and also seek out some of the collections in which these stories appeared.

Review of 'Bridge of Spies'

A suspense thriller without much suspense or thrills, this was nevertheless enjoyable to watch, if only for the way that the environment of the early 1960s in the US and Berlin has been so lovingly recreated. The politics are pretty liberal - Tom Hanks respects the spy he is defending as an honourable soldier, Mark Rylance is brilliant as the self-effacing but self-disciplined spy, the morals about personal loyalty and decency under conditions of adversity. The Soviets behave well within the rules of the Cold War (though it seems that their interrogation techniques are much less gentle than those of the Americans - I wonder whether there are any proper studies on this?), virtue is rewarded, and so on.

The plot bowls along so that it doesn't drag, but as I said there isn't much tension. We don't know for sure whether the spy swap will go through, or what will happen to the Soviet spy afterwards, but I have to say by that point I didn't care all that much.