Film Review: Up in the Air

I was on my way to another business hotel so I decided to download a relevant film I’ve been meaning to catch since its release six years ago.  Aside from wondering what on earth I could have been doing these past six years the question to be asked is: was my decision to download a good use of the free Caffe Nero wifi?  And the answer is: yes.

George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a frequent flyer nearing a landmark in airmiles that few have reached, whose job is to go from city to city breaking the bad news to folk who’ve just been made redundant.  His home is the Hilton in whatever town he’s in, he gets their via American Airlines and he rents from Hertz.  He lives for the automated customer service and fake bonhomie of the corporate travel – and he also gives talks entitled “What’s in your backpack?” in which he advises tired looking people to give up that which weighs them down.

Into Ryan’s world come two women.  Alex Goran, played by Vera Farmiga, who advises Ryan to “think of me as you, but with a vagina”, and Natalie, a recent graduate whose decision to propose the new technology of web communication threatens to end Ryan’s endless flight.  Anna Kendrick is Natalie.  The three leads put in such strong performances that at times it threatens to make the film look lazy – or at least easy.  But none of these characters are going to automatically attract our sympathy or interest and the fact that they do is in no small measure due to the quality of the acting.

There’s also a decent script, a diverting and not-quite-what-you-expect plot (although, slight spoiler, when someone walks up unannounced to a doorway expecting great things we know it’s not going to happen), and some absolutely note-perfect use of setting and location.  Business life is made to look both charming and seductive and alienating and lonely.  The film doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions and pulls a few punches at the end, but it’s a surprisingly engaging, deep and fun Hollywood film.

It’s also a bit dated.  I may be wondering what I’ve been doing in the past six years but six years is prehistory to this kind of life.  Hell, this is so old people are typing emails on a Blackberry.  Nobody checks in to social media, there’s no FaceTime and not one person downloads a film using a coffee shop’s free wifi and kills time watching it on a tablet.  It might as well be in sepia.

That it still connects despite all that shows that this is a more than decent movie.  Worth checking out if, like me, sometimes it can take a while to get round to things and you need something to do on your way to another sodding business hotel.

I like this song: (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville

Maybe it’s the brackets in the title.  I like songs with a good use of brackets in the title.  Maybe it’s because you can hear virtually all the words unlike so many REM songs of the time.  Maybe it’s because it’s REM.  Maybe it’s because it has an air of defiant vulnerability.  Maybe it’s because the worst that can happen is “you’ll wind up in some factory” in some town where nobody says hello.  But, after that, the singer doesn’t really need you.  Not really.  Maybe because that’s bullshit.

TV Review: The Man in the High Castle

What if the Nazis won?  Not exactly the most original question you’ll ever hear but it’s the starting point for The Man in the High Castle which, taking its lead from a Philip K Dick novel, imagines a 1962 in which the United States has been divided into a Greater Reich on the East and occupied Japanese States in the West, with a neutral zone buffering the two.   The Man in the High Castle is Amazon’s big ticket drama, a possible breakout for their Prime service, and all 10 episodes became available in the UK on Friday.  It’s a surefire hit.

Without having read the source novel I can’t say how closely they stuck to it but many of the themes that are familiar from other Philip K Dick works are here.  Notably we’re dealing with a world in which violence and death are ubiquitous but hidden; people go about their daily lives determined to live as calmly as possible.  The resistance, such as it is, has grand visions but is not particularly good at achieving them.  Key to their (vague) objectives are film reels which are smuggled to the man in the high castle which seem to show another world, one in which the Allies won.  Their power and purpose is enigmatic but that people will kill or be killed for them is never in doubt.

Across the ten episodes of this series the world of The Man in the High Castle expands from a central pair of Juliana Crain, an American woman reluctantly thrust into the resistance against the Japanese, and Joe Blake, an American from the East whose motives and allegiances maybe he himself doesn’t quite understand.  They meet, first, in the Neutral Zone to which they have both ventured. There is a notable difference between East Coast and West Coast in that in the Pacific States, the Japanese are clearly occupying and bossing the lower orders whereas in the Greater Reich, the undesirables have been eliminated and everyone can happily celebrate ‘VA Day’.

Surrounding this pair are interlocking circles of plot, character and setting.  Far too much to list here but there are standout performances from Rufus Sewell as Obergruppenfuehrer John Smith and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the Trade Minister.  What is notable is how human everyone is, even the monsters in the secret services are motivated by reasons they would see as honest.  These outer stories assume greater import as the series goes on and there are times when it can feel a bit of a drag to go back to Juliana and Joe.  That’s possibly because towards the end it feels like their story arc is being deliberately slowed so we can have a second series.  It’s a minor concern though in a programme which consistently hits the highs it aims for.

A word must go to how the world of The Man in the High Castle looks.  The biggest compliment you can pay is that having seen what a Nazi controlled New York looks like and how the people in it are dressed and act you now can’t imagine it any other way.  There is a consistent clarity of thought and this well-realised world is the outcome.  They have avoided the jackbootery of a 1984 world and gone for something more disturbing: a perfectly ordinary one which just so happens to have the bad guys in charge.

Philip K Dick’s works often end in confusion about what is real and what is not, whose mind is the rational and whose the deluded.  There are glimpses of that here and towards the end it becomes a spoken out loud aspect, even if it is never resolved.  There are enough loose ends and enough to do in this alternative 1962 that a second series seems highly likely but the writers will need to firm up some of those things that are left unexplained this time round if they are to avoid becoming twisted in knots.  By doing so The Man in the High Castle may lose some of the strengths of this first season but, at the moment, I have a naive confidence they may get it right again.  Should there be no more episodes I wouldn’t be too sad – for anyone except completists who need every last thing explained this was a more than decent ride.

In these dull days where so much seems to be dumbed down or where things that are described as ‘clever’ seem to lack intelligence or consistency it is a real pleasure to come across something as deep and pleasing as The Man in the High Castle.  If there is a downside it’s that it’s another triumph for the closed-off environment of Amazon.  Maybe in the future we’ll need another Philip K Dick to imagine us a world in which such smart storytelling is once more the mainstream.

At Hastings Art Forum: SoCo Artists, Miscellany

And so to Hastings Art Forum, a welcoming venue located on the St Leonards seafront, for a group exhibition by SoCo Artists, a professional collective whose base in East Sussex is reflected in several of the works on display.

For example, Sally Cole offers ‘Dungeness’ and ‘Cliff Edge’, neither of which would satisfy folk who want photographic representations in their painting but which vibrantly capture the spirit of those locations.  This style recurs a lot in an exhibition where feeling and canvases with energy feature far more than obvious representational studies.  I particularly liked the pairing of Felicity Montaigu and Colin Robson in the corner of the second room with their emotive, weathered landscapes, and the work shown by Jen Painter, ‘Summer’s End’ in particular, creates a feeling by selecting the essential elements of a landscape and fusing them beautifully.

There is a lot that is worth looking at.  My personal favourite being Heather Hookey’s swirling, almost-noir, Tearoom.  I lack the vocabulary to say why but I enjoyed the way people and objects merge, its effective use of a particular purply palette of colour and the slight ray of light.

All in all, this is an excellent collection. It’s contemporary and inquisitive without being aloof and excluding.  I liked it a lot and intend to keep a lookout for what SoCo are doing next.

Film Review: A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence

Long-takes, static cameras, posed actors, unlinked scenes, absurdist situations and subtitles, it really is a wonder why I didn’t catch A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence at the local multiplex.  If ever a film screamed “Defiantly Arthouse” then this is it.

This is the third film in Roy Andersson’s “living” trilogy.  I haven’t seen the first two and, given the resolutely disconnected way this film pans out, I doubt it would make much of a difference to my opinion if I had.  I would probably have been better prepared although part of the pleasure – or displeasure, this film is marmite – comes from the realisation that absolutely nothing in the 110 minutes Pigeon takes is going to play by any structurally sound rules.

Not for Andersson such petty considerations as plot, character development or action.  What we have here are tableaux, loosely linked by two unsucessful false vampire teeth salesmen.  There is a palette of beige and brown costume, and whitened faces so that the whole thing looks like it’s come via a lost video from thirty-five years ago.  Nobody expresses but there are jokes, some of them actually funny.  There’s a soupçon of pathos too and possibly we’re meant to dwell on the human condition in some way as well.  If we are, that’s a bit less successful.

The odd thing about it all is how optimistic it makes you feel despite the fact that very little optimistic happens.  But then maybe a film which begins with someone having a heart attack opening a bottle of wine and ends [SPOILER ALERT LIKE IT MATTERS] with a group waiting a bus stop unsure of the day but looking to the sky is somehow taking the viewer on a positive journey.  It’s not the most straightforward way of getting jolly but I’ll take it over a lot of the more mainstream alternatives.

At the De La Warr Pavilion: In the Realm of Others

Promotional image from the De la Warr Pavilion

This is a hard exhibition to write about.  This isn’t because the works are poor or the curation substandard but because the people who have created the art on display may not consider themselves artists, and their understanding of their ‘work’ may differ radically from that held by the viewer.  The makers, as the exhibition calls them, are people with neurological impairments and they have been supported in creating the pieces for this exhibition by Project Artworks who are based in Hastings.  The result is a show of quite striking originality, one in which not only the art but also the way of thinking about the creating, viewing and purpose of art lingers long after you’ve left.

One of those featured is Albert Geere.  Geere has been a resident of institutions for 80 years.  The pieces shown here are vibrant, colourful; they play with simplistic lines and stark shapes.  They make you smile.  They all feature buildings.  Block buildings, as if by a child, with little else to be seen.  The art and his story can be separate but once they are entwined new ways of seeing and engaging become possible.

Others also use colour.  For example, Michelle Roberts whose work is in the end room covers the canvas with shapes, animals and objects.  They are all brightly rendered and come across almost like a technicolour reimagining of the earliest cave art.

Alongside this there are mighty abstracts which fizz and zing.  The energy of their creation seemingly still alive now.  These are paired with more considered, smaller scale drawings.  The range is phenomenal, the standard uniformly high.

There are two video installations.  One shows four members of the programme visiting a church on Romney Marsh that functions without electricity.  The other, more interesting, shows the makers themselves at work.  It is, like everything else, compelling and leaves questions about art and purpose hanging.

New works are being created throughout the run of the show.  I was unfortunate enough to be there on a day where nothing was happening.  I will be going back though.  This is an exhibition with few equals.  It deserves, and needs, to be seen.

Brief Moment of Music

Novels should get a note to go past 300 pages, films should be done in 95 minutes, and perfect pop songs need to be better than perfect to go past 120 seconds.  I hold all of those truths to be self evident.

The Pooh Sticks did to.  The World Is Turning On is over and out inside two minutes.  It’s jangly and lovely and I just found it again on YouTube.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 613 other followers

%d bloggers like this: