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.