Monday, June 19, 2017

Wholeness and wholesomeness: Waitress reviewed

More from the vaults...

Waitress (2007) starts off bitter and slowly graduates towards sweet, and by the end is more than a little cloying. Still, if you can forgive it that, there's a lot to like here.

Keri Russell (who 2017 me has just remembered was also the best thing in Austenland) plays Jenna - a typical waitress in a classic American diner, with a pie fixation, a lousy husband and an initially unwanted pregnancy. Via an affair with her doctor and with the support of an ensemble of small town comic stock types, she finds herself!

So full of archetypes is it, Waitress only really makes sense to me as the filming of an indie slice-of-life graphic novel, a four-colour tale of wacky waitresses, bad-tempered cooks and nerdy-but-loveable suitors. But that's not necessarily a bad thing if it's done with skill, as it is here thanks to presiding spirit writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelley *.

Rather, it makes it a film with a vision - a way of looking at the world. Wholeness and wholesomeness.

Until the last act, Waitress does a good job of tempering this sweetness with the damaged marital relationship at its core. And it's not that I begrudge the film its happy ending, it's just that without that dilution the mawkishness goes right up to 11 and it loses its charm somewhat.

Up to that point though, a most likeable picture.

* who was tragically murdered shortly before the film was released.

From the vaults: Eagle Vs Shark reviewed

Another film review retrieved from journals past, this time Eagle Vs Shark (2007). If you want to know what Taika Waititi was up to prior to What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, well, this is it.

EvsS is (surprise!) a quirky New Zealand indieflick about a shy romantic (Lily, played by Loren Horsley) with the misfortune to fall in love with self-obsessed geek Jarrod (Jermaine Clement, pre-Conchord mania) at a 'come as your favourite animal' party. The film follows them as they return to his home town for a showdown with the school bully.

As well as being deadpan funny, 2007 me found EvsS unexpectedly moving. It illustrates not just the pitfalls in both self-centredness and passivity, but also how they can reinforce each other. Happily for the viewer, it also shows that these stances can shift, no matter how firmly embedded they seem. 

There's some fine comic ensemble playing, but what carries the film are the two main leads. Clement plays Jarrod with sufficient vulnerabilty that you can sense the damage underneath the bursts of staccato bravado. Meanwhile Horsley adroitly moves Lily from a woman with her heart in her mouth at all times to one who finally holds herself like she's answered her own question.

EvsS is no Wilderpeople, yet if you want to see early signs of the comic humanism that powered last year's breakout success, you'll find plenty of evidence here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

If Dylan were a Timelord: I'm Not There

I've been archiving seven or eight years of journalling from the London and Birmingham years recently and have found a few more film reviews to share.

I'm Not There is Todd Haynes' Dylan fantasia - a novelistic treatment of seven different stages of Bob Dylan's career. 

It's starting point is perhaps that the man himself is ultimately unknowable, a view Volume 1 of his autobiography does nothing to unpick, I fear. So instead, different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw) are employed at each stage to symbolise these sharp changes in presentation and artistic direction. 

As if Dylan were a Timelord, if you like (*).

From earnest folkie, through plugged in rocker chasing that wild mercury sound, to Woodstock exile and born-again Christian, I'm Not There veers between realism and magic realism depending on which 'Bob' is on stage. And all seven Dylans are compelling: above all Cate Blanchett as electric Highway '61 Bob and Christian Bale. The playfulness and passionate engagement with the source material runs right through the film, and the music's great too.

It's focus on Dylan as myth rather than as man means it's biggest weakness is inevitably it's lack of emotional heft. The closest it comes is Blanchett portraying an artist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But for all that it avoids bathos and the over-dramatisation of the conventional biopic. So despite it's slight flaws, it's a brave, engaging film.

* And I suppose Bob and The Doctor occupy similar locations in our modern mythology - outsiders, tricksters, tellers of truth to power. Symbols of self-transformation, what the graphic novelist Grant Morrision would call hypersigils. But that's one for another post.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The hypercompetence of mavericks: thoughts on Die Hard

I've been wondering why Die Hard has lasted, as against so many other 80's action films, having seen it for the first time in ages last year in a festival movie tent.

On one level, it's an easy question to answer. Die Hard is a competent B-movie action picture elevated to something special by the interplay between the two character-actor leads: Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman. 

Both are especially good at the grey area between comedy and righteous anger (Willis) or menace (Rickman) respectively. And tonally speaking, that's the screwball sweet spot for 80's action films - the violence has to be undercut enough by the banter so as to be palatable for a mass audience. 

But there's more to Willis than comic timing - he's a powerful identification figure for the audience. Rugged but not ripped, Bruce can do 'concerned, heavily armed citizen' John McClane in way that anomalous Arnie or sonorous Stallone would struggle to match. 

His buddy-buddy relationship wth desk cop turned first responder (Reginald VelJohnson - also a great piece of casting) is convincing because of that. And the actions he takes against the terrorists/robbers are all the more credible for it too.

Which brings us too, I suppose, to the legendary quality that fuels Die Hard. While its merits as a film with a great cast have helped it last, it also doesn't hurt that it's perhaps one of the most persuasive cinematic restatements of the armed civilian myth: the idea that what you really need in a crisis is not the state but a frontiersman with a gun. 

And in Bruce's case, a "Ho, Ho, Ho" too.

Yes, the film stacks the deck massively in favour of this reading - the deputy chief of police is an idiot, the two FBI agents even more so - but that is to argue its credibility rather than its mythic power. 

This isn't a post about gun control, and it would be ridiculous to directly extrapolate from Die Hard to arguments for or against anything in the real world. On the other hand, the stories we tell and retell about the world can be inadvertently revealing. 

What does it mean that films like this valorise the hypercompetence of violent mavericks? What does it signify when they also strike such a chord in us too?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some recipes I'm trying

In the spirit of reminding myself how relaxing I find baking and cooking, but not just cooking vegetarian paella on autopilot every week, here's a log of any new recipes I try over the next few months.

Moroccan harcha (semolina pan-fried flatbread)
Chipotle black bean chilli 
Jamie Oliver simple tomato pasta sauce (deployed with Ikea meatballs and the vegetarian equivalent)  
Sun-dried tomato risotto (recipe used pearl barley instead of rice but we didn't have time on this occasion, maybe the next one)
Stuffed pepper leftover experiment (exactly as tasty as it sounds)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Novel needs Director's Cut? Glasshouse by Charles Stross reviewed.

'Accelerando on downers' is probably not the synopsis Charles Stross would choose for Glasshouse (2006), although it does take the former's (relative) optimism about posthumanism and drastically flip it. 

So, let's try again.

In Stross' body of work, Glasshouse is perhaps the equivalent of the 'difficult' prog/metal experiment: all dystopian ideas, arcane technology, ultraviolence and unusual time signatures. And I mean the part about time signatures pretty much literally, since the novel opens with a glossary of time as measured in the far future setting, all kiloseconds, megaseconds and giga.... well you get the picture.

It follows that the convoluted plot, summarised and compressed here, will make limited sense. Key to following it all is comprehending the idea of posthumanism/transhumanism - the theory that in the future technology will allow humanity to transcend its physical and mental limitations and be whatever it or individual members of the species want to be. In twenty-first century space opera (like Glasshouse) this often goes hand in hand with interstellar or at least inter-planetary civilisation.

Done badly or indifferently, it just makes for a lot of hand-waving science-indistinguishable-from-magic special effects. Done well, it also raises questions about the provisional nature of our humanity under technological pressure and the ethical problems which arise whether we embrace or resist change. Glasshouse is one of the latter.

Our protagonist Robin, is an amnesiac posthuman in a new body, recovering from PTSD after a cosmic information war. He volunteers for the interstellar equivalent of Castaway or a gigantic LARP, a psychological experiment in recreating Dark Age (read: twentieth century Earth) society. Needless to say, things aren't quite what they seem.

Stross throws out ideas, leads and lures in such quantities that the book properly fizzes. This is both a strength and a weakness: it takes a while to work out what's going on and at least a couple of sub-plots are left hanging without proper resolution. The antagonists, too, are more sketched out than fully developed in a way which weakens the philosophical elements of the book.

As is traditional, he doesn't quite land the ending either, rushing through it in a few scanty pages. There's a lot going on in Glasshouse and for me it's one of those rare novels that would benefit from more than the 388 pages it has. A Director's Cut, maybe?

This review would also not be complete without mentioning that this is a righteously angry book in polemical dialogue with the present and recent past, particularly with gender roles and the answers provided by (for example) Christian fundamentalism. You can probably guess which aspects of twentieth century American society the experiment tries to replicate with imperfect information, and the resulting body horror places Glasshouse closest in mood (sombre, oppressive, skin-crawling) to The Apocalypse Codex in the Stross canon.

It falls very much into the category of gloriously messy, ideas-driven, heart-on-sleeve flawed-but-fascinating science-fiction novels that I love almost as much as the ones that do all of this and bring it all on home. A rewarding, if occasionally frustrating novel.

Most read posts so far this year

The blog has been gently bubbling away in 2017, sustained by a series of posts on the charts of 1976 and its use as a bit of link library / memory palace for work. 

I'm never sure what posts are going to get the most traction, but here are the most viewed so far this year: 

1. Paul, The Liverpool South Parkway Station Cat 
2. Health-geekery March 2017
3. Scaramouching Its Way To The Top - Bohemian Rhapsody
4. Was Pop In Crisis In 1976?
5. Introducing The 1976 Project 
6. 1976 Was Peak Abba
7. 2017 Hugo Nominations - A Much More Open Field
8. Michael Fabricant Is Right 
9. Finding Your Feet Again: Alcest's Kodama 
10. Thoughts From Oatcake Country

That breaks down to:
Music (1976) - 4
Politics - 3
Cats - 1  
Music (other) - 1
Science-fiction - 1

Monday, May 22, 2017

A 1976 playlist

In lieu of a proper post today, a playlist of the cream of the charts of '76 (at least in this blogger's opinion). No reissue, no Christmas singles, alright?

Complete up to mid-May '76.

Abba - Dancing Queen 
Biddu Orchestra - Rainforest
David Bowie - Golden Years
Johnny Cash - One Piece At A Time
Tina Charles - I Love To Love

Brass Construction - Movin'
Can - I Want More 
Chicago - If You Leave Me Now
Paul Davidson - Midnight Rider
Detroit Spinners - Rubberband Man
The Fatback Band - Night Fever (no, not that one) 

Bryan Ferry - Let's Stick Together
Fox - S-s-s-Single Bed 
Emmylou Harris - Here, There And Everywhere
Isaac Hayes - Disco Connection
Juggy Jones - Inside America

Elton John - Pinball Wizard
Elton John and Kiki Dee - Don't Go Breaking My Heart 
Gladys Knight And The Pips - Make Yours A Happy Home
C W McCall - Convoy
George McCrae - Honey I

The Miracles - Love Machine
Mistura featuring Lloyd Michaels - The Flasher
Mud - Shake It Down 
Walter Murphy - A Fifth Of Beethoven
Osibisa - Sunshine Day

Dolly Parton - Jolene
Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
Cliff Richard - Devil Woman
Diana Ross - Love Hangover
Sailor - Glass Of Champagne 

Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Boston Tea Party
Silver Convention - Get Up And Boogie 
Candi Station - Young Hearts Run Free
R And J Stone - We Do It 
Donna Summer - Love To Love You Baby

Johnnie Taylor - Disco Lady
10cc - Art For Art's Sake
Thin Lizzy - Jailbreak 
Thin Lizzy - The Boys Are Back In Town 
Johnny Wakelin - In Zaire

War - Low Rider
Wild Cherry - Play That Funky Music 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Swiss Family Roadtrip: Captain Fantastic

When we were driving through rural California back in 2015 on the way to Yosemite, @rae102011 and I were struck by how easy it would be to just disappear in the vastness of America.

Dropping out in Britain is compromised (with the possible exception of northern Scotland) by population density -  the counterculture is social by necessity as much as by inclination. In the US, there's little to prevent you going full Walden, if that's what you want. 

And in last year's film Captain Fantastic, that's exactly what Ben and Leslie Cash thought they wanted.

NB mild spoilers and mention of mental illness and suicide follow.

Turning their back on the dominant culture, they raise their six children in deep seclusion in the forested fastness of Washington state. Their aim: to raise philosophers and athletes in the style of the Ancient Greeks, able to cite the Bill of Rights as readily as they can run miles through the forest. 

Writer/director Matt Ross manages the feat of taking this project as seriously as they do themselves, while also acknowledging the comedy inherent in a family who give their children one-of-a-kind new age names (Vespyr, Rellian, Bodevan) and celebrate Noam Chomsky Day in lieu of Christmas.

Captain Fantastic is a film about the collapse of this rural utopian dream through the mental illness and death of mother Leslie and the family's resulting, reluctant but pragmatic compromise with American society. Rugged, brooding, heartfelt - though not without lightness of touch - it's a very Viggo Mortensen kind of film.

And he excels himself in the lead role of grieving patriarch Ben Cash, driving down to New Mexico with clan in tow to disrupt Leslie's (profoundly, inappropriately traditional) funeral. A kind of Swiss Family Roadtrip, if you like. The kids are great too, played by the juvenile cast with just the right mix of precocity, naivete and presumption you'd expect of children raised by latter-day Rousseaus.

The film walks a nice line between critiquing the idea that one can change the world simply by retreating and raising the next generation apart from it, while also showing up the limits and ignorance of modern techno-culture. It doesn't trade on broad strokes or easy answers though; it's a small film about parents with big ideas and is all the better for it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Spring into action [PUN KLAXON]

With thanks to my colleagues and the E-campaigning forum, I'm just scrap-booking some interesting links and resources here to create an impromptu reading list.

Unless indicated otherwise, linking does not indicate support, endorsement or the adoption of a resource as my philosophy of living. :)

Community organising

Betsy Hoover's TED talk on community organising

Change Agency guide to community organising

Unlocking Networks - a resource for developing and getting the most from peer-to-peer networks.

Directed network campaigns

An interesting report from NetChange about balancing central direction and bottom-up participation in campaigning.

E-mail activism

Free report from More Onion about how you can make your e-mail activism aimed at MP's and other decision-makers as effective as possible.

More More Onion reporting: supporter journeys and how to automate them

And a contrasting voice about the limits of e-activism.

Mobilisation Lab archive

Where all their regular updates on campaign innovation can be found.

Facilitation resource banks, hints and tips

Training For Change
Conscious Collaboration
Seeds For Change
Radical Think Tank

The long view

Friends of the Earth look at lessons from campaigns throughout history. A nice companion piece to this is an ACEVO report making the case for charity campaigning in the here and now.

They call him The Ponderer

Tom Baker is The Thoughtful Campaigner (see for example his thoughts on leadership in campaigns or on campaigning in coalition)

48 Campaign Strategies? So close to Paul Simon, but not quite 

Thanks, Chris Rose

Or: More Onion on unconventional tactics.

Stories and listening

Great article on Open Democracy by Simon Hodges about respectful relationships being a key criterion for persuasion. See also Outrageous Impact on a similar topic.

Teamwork and coalitions

Creative coalitions: a handbook for change
How Google Docs became a key tool for social justice

Old school

Common Cause report on value-led campaigning

Health-geekery May 2017

There's been so much going on since my last round-up that I'm just going to steadily accumulate links here as I find time to go through them in my inbox.

As usual, inclusion doesn't necessarily mean agreement, merely interest.


New drug licensed in America for the treatment of MND (the MND Association's research blog) 

The news broke at the Association's regional conference for people with MND and their families last Saturday in Liverpool. This event also coverered campaigning and awareness-raising: you can watch my colleague Colin Morris give a sneak preview of Awareness Month in June followed (from about 16 minutes) me introducing an absolutely barnstorming speech by local campaigner Debbie Williams on the MND Charter.


NHS left reeling by cyberattack in the Guardian (and a warning from Silicon from December 2016)
Labour now support a moratorium on STP's
Recruitment crisis in nursing (Grauniad again)
National Voices editorialise on health stats from IPSOS global trends report
Naylor Review of NHS estates summarised by The Whitehouse Consultancy.


Nice bit of infographery for the local elections and the General Election in Wales from Deryn

The third sector and the General Election:
Disability Rights UK
National Voices
Disability Benefits Consortium
Action Duchenne
Terrence Higgins Trust

Disability rights

Equality and Human Rights Commission reviews disability inequality in Britain: a journey less equal.


Snapshot survey from the RCP finds that doctors across Wales were struggling to cope with NHS winter pressures
Public Health (Wales) Act passes into law - some provisions about accessible toilets particularly relevant from a work perspective but lots more in there.
Extra money available for social care.

Health and social care campaigning

Responses to a question I asked in various places about campaign heroes (unsung and otherwise). Thanks to everyone who suggested candidates. 

Transforming mental health in Lambeth (via Nesta)
Roy Lilley
Self Directed Support Scotland
Dr James Fleming and Green Dreams (link to more about social prescribing here via the College of Medicine)
Anya de Iongh (the Patient Patient)
The Campaign To End Loneliness
Peer-to-peer behaviour change campaigns like Club Soda and others.
Unison's Care Charter
Save Lewisham Hospital
Mencap annual health checks campaign

Cat on a Mondrianesque background

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Uttoxeter 10K

I spent this morning propelling myself round a very pretty rural 10K course in and around Uttoxeter. It was described in the promo material as 'undulating' - which I now understand is runner code for 'hills but not hardcore hills.'

With that topography in mind, together with the fact that my training regime had not been the most rigorous, I'm pretty happy with a run time of approximately 1 hour, 1 minute and 40 seconds. A good four minutes slower than my best time in a proper race, but I'll take it!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Scrapbook: more of the case for the defence for pop music in 1976

My previous post offered a qualified defence of 1976 as actually not being such a terrible year for pop music as might have been thought. While the foundation of my argument rests on the view that soul, funk and the new kid on the block, disco, were not only in the rudest of health but also formed a fair proportion of the Top 40, I thought I'd see what else I might call to the defence of '76.

Here are some thoughts to get me started which I will work up into longer posts as I go forward. 

Any preferences? Anything else you think I should be tackling?

1. Stevie Wonder releases Songs In The Key of Life

Although I Wish was a top 5 hit towards the end of year, SITKOL is worth a citation in its own right as there's so much goodness on this double album it's unbelievable: As, Love's In Need Of Love Today, Have A Talk With A God and Sir Duke (which charted big the following year). 

I mean, Have A Talk With God sounds like Stevie and a chorus of malfunctioning R2-units praising the Creator and it's still an amazing piece of pop music. Sui generis.

2. Reminder: the golden age of classic rock continued 

Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear The Reaper, Boston's More Than A Feeling, Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town, Kiss' Detroit Rock City, The Eagles' Hotel California. All released on albums in '76, all singles, all great pop regardless of what else they and their bands might be.

Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody, of course, we've already covered.

3. Yankee punk countercurrents: Ramones and The Modern Lovers release their first albums 

Okay, so neither band were troubling the charts of 1976 on either side of the Atlantic. But since Blitzkrieg Bop, Roadrunner and the rest helped inspire a new-old style of pop music in the years that followed, at the very least we can point to the creative health of the punk margins at this time as a sign of what was to come.

And whisper it, but Anarchy In The UK was released in November 1976.

4. ELO enter their imperial period

We're still two years away from Mr Blue Sky, but A New World Record was out and Livin' Thing snuck it's way into the Top 10. ELO were on heavy rotation in my house when i was very young, so this would inevitably be something of a sentimental journey.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Was pop in crisis in 1976?

As so far I've cherry picked what I actually write about from 1976, I thought it might be interesting to consider what a typical Top 40 for the year looked like. Which genres predominated? How much of it was actually any good? 

This was partly inspired by coming across a 2011 article by Alexis Petridis in The Guardian damning the music of 1976 as 'pop's worst year' based on watching the Top Of The Pops archives.

"it's difficult to express how awful [...] pop music seems to have been in 1976. Every week, something comes on that causes you to be gripped by the absolute certainty that an unequivocal nadir has been reached and that things can only get better."

Is this fair? Was pop in crisis in '76?

To begin to test this, let's take 11-17 April 1976, when the top 10 was as follows:

1. Brotherhood Of Man - Save Your Kisses For Me
2. Abba - Fernando
3. John Miles - Music
4. Barry White - The Trouble With Me
5. Hank Mizell - Jungle Rock
6. 10cc - I'm Mandy Fly Me
7. Diana Ross - Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)
8. The Bay City Rollers - Love Me Like I Love You
9. Sailor - Girls Girls Girls
10. Elton John - Pinball Wizard

So, according to my own idiosyncratic understanding of genre, that's:

- MOR/pure pop - 4
- Prog-pop - 2
- Funk/soul - 1
- Novelty rockabilly - 1
- Rock opera showtune - 1 
- Vaudeville atrocity (you know who you are)- 1

And in descending order of quality:

- Pinball Wizards - 1
- Barry Whites - 1
- Music from the future and from the past? Why, Mr Miles! - 1 
- [tipping point for quality starts here]
- Good bands having a bad day - 2
- Hurry up and work with Chic already - 1
- MOR purgatory - 2
- What-is-this-I-can't-even? - 2

A Top Ten in which the best thing in it by a country mile is a song from 1969 redone for a Ken Russell's film does tend to support the Petridis Theory, it's true. And any week in which the chart is topped by Save Your Kisses For Me is in itself is a self-contained argument for punk.

But let's see how this plays out over the Top 40 as a whole:

- MOR/pure pop -13
- Funk/soul/disco - 11
- Beatles reissues - 6
- Prog-pop - 3
- Country/country rock - 2
- Glam rock - 1
- Keith Emerson playing ragtime piano, because hey, why not! - 1    
- Novelty rockabilly - 1
- Other 60's reissues - 1
- Rock opera showtune - 1
- Vaudeville atrocity - 1 

While this week is something of a high watermark for nostalgia in 1976, EMI having just reissued all 22 Beatles singles, pretty much any given week that year sees golden oldies charting. And it's hardly a ringing endorsement of the health of the charts when the past is more essential than the present.

However, the big shift when looking at the Top 40, and this is pretty much consistent in my journey through the year so far, is the increase in soul, funk and disco tracks.

And if I look at what's good (for reasonably broad but subjective values of 'good') in the entire chart, I find an interesting correlation.

- Disco Connection - Isaac Hayes
- S-S-S-Single Bed - Fox
- Love Really Hurts Without You - Billy Ocean
- Movin' - Brass Construction
- Silver Connection - Get Up And Boogie
- All By Myself - Eric Carmen (yes, that All By Myself)
- I Love To Love - Tina Charles
- That's Where The Happy People Go - The Trammps

Heck, even Convoy, if I'm feeling generous.

The key point here is that the overwhelming majority of the good stuff in this particular chart is either contemporary American funk and disco music or local iterations of the same (the mighty Billy Ocean and Tina Charles) or otherwise heavily endebted to it (Fox). While I haven't gone back for rigorous checks, I'll maintain that this holds broadly true across all the 1976 Top 40's I've looked at so far. And to be fair to Petridis, this is also a point he near-as-darn-it makes in his article too.

Viewed in this light, talk of pop crisis in '76 needs to be more nuanced. Yes, there's a fair amount of middling to terrible light entertainment and MOR to work through, which not even Abba can balance that out. And it's true that decent rock '45's not from the 1960's are thin on the ground; punk and new wave can't come soon enough to change that.  

So it's a crisis of place (the UK) and a crisis of sub-genre, perhaps, but not one of pop itself.