A Farewell to Arms


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A Farewell to Arms

Directed by Frank Borzage

USA, 1932

Cornerhouse, 27 July 2014

A Farewell to Arms

A soldier falls in love with a nurse.

She had loved a boy before and then lost him – death blossoming wildly in wartime, blasting the future, giving urgency to the present moment.  The couple love amidst a garden of death.

This is a more than decent adaptation of Hemingway’s novel, allowing that it’s a Hollywood film and was most likely seen as a star vehicle for Gary Cooper.  He’s OK but Adolphe Menjou as Rinaldi is the outstanding actor. Meanwhile, Frank Borzage shows something of his class in the montage that follows Henry’s desertion: all desolate landscapes and pools of darkness. An inferno.

A good film, but you do yearn at the end for the grandeur of Hemingway’s language:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places…

And so on.

Around the World in 80 Days


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Around the World in 80 Days

Adapted by Laura Eason from the novel by Jules Verne

Royal Exchange Theatre, 22 July 2014

Michael Hugo as Passepartout in AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (Royal Exchange Theatre 17 July - 16 August). Photo - Andrew Billington

Michael Hugo as Passepartout in AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (Royal Exchange Theatre 17 July – 16 August). Photo – Andrew Billington

This is a lovely, lively production of Jules Verne’s classic novel.

There is a serious point to the story, of course, all about how the world has grown small, due to the human inventions of the railway and the steam ship. It’s of a piece with the enthusiasm of impressionist painters for trains and gaslight.

But that’s all to the side.  The play itself is a boisterous romp which showcases the cast’s aptitude for comedy and physical theatre.  There’s visual comedy, kung-fu fighting, picturesque characters aplenty.  Myriad sources of mayhem and mirth. Michael Hugo as Passepartout, Fogg’s valet, stands out, but in truth all the actors are playing at the top of their game.

Warm as sunlight, scrumptious as gepulo ice-cream, this play is ideal summer fare.

Around the World in Eighty Days is showing at the Royal Exchange until 16 August, further details are here.

Finding Vivian Maier


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Finding Vivian Maier

Directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof

USA, 2013

Cornerhouse, 20 July 2014

Finding Vivian Maier

An interesting documentary, its subject a woman who worked as a nanny and took thousands and thousands of photographs, the negatives found in storage lockers after her death.

About Vivian Maier’s personal life we know next to nothing: she apparently had no lovers or close friends, whilst contact with what little family she had petered out fairly soon.  To be sure, this was not a small-hearted person; her photographs tell us as much, if nothing else.  After looking at several it is clear they have a definite quality and character. The photographs have value as a record of the perceptions of an unusual woman, and may even come to be called art.

For those who know of Henry Darger, the form Maier’s life took will sound eerily familiar.  Another human being who had a humble job and lived a modest existence yet left behind an extraordinary body of work.  But while Darger retreated into his own world of fantasy, Maier confronted the world with her camera pretty much every day.  There’s more compassion in her work, more feeling for others.

Finally (eyes wide open) it should be said that John Maloof, the co-director, owns most of Vivian Maier’s photographs.  So he has a clear interest in promoting her work.

Well worth a watch.

Risk Savvy


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Risk Savvy: How to make good decisions

By Gerd Gigerenzer

Allen Lane, 2014

ISBN: 9781846144745

Risk Savvy: How to make good decisions

In this combative yet elegantly argued book Gerd Gigerenzer extols ‘the power of simple rules in the real, messy world’.

He rails mightily against the notion that all risks in any real-world situation are, or can be, known – even going so far as to dub it the ‘turkey illusion’.  During the course of the book, Gigerenzer parades a number of such situations where this notion proved misguided and costly.  Naturally, pride of place goes to the financial crisis of 2008.  Perhaps this crisis or something like it could not have been wholly avoided, nonetheless the suffering arising from it (and still to come) could have been considerably allayed if the banks had followed Mervyn King’s rule: Don’t use leverage ratios above 10:1.

The thrust of the book is that you can use such straightforward rules to cope with and take control of almost any real-world situation, from choosing how to invest your money, to picking a spouse, to deciding what to order from a restaurant menu.

A strength of the book, alongside the insights into statistics and frequent practical advice, is that Gigerenzer doesn’t mince his words.  Of banks, for example, he says at one point that:

Fear of personal responsibility [by managers] creates a market for worthless products [here, he is specifically talking about currency predictions] delivered by high-paid experts [financial

He is also fairly scathing about doctors and the medical profession generally.  Overall, one gains the impression that, when it comes to experts, the line about a broken clock being right twice a day is never far from the author’s lips.

Professionals, including journalists (if they count), get it in the neck because they don’t understand the nature of risk.  But, then again, nor do we, the general public.  On this point, Gigerenzer’s closing words are also worth quoting in full:

Critical thinking requires knowledge.  To get it running we need courage, the courage to make our own decisions and take on the responsibility.  Dare to know.

An empowering book, which is described by the publisher here.

An Autumn Afternoon



An Autumn Afternoon

Directed by Yasijuro Ozu

Japan, 1962

Cornerhouse, 13 July 2014

An Autumn Afternoon

A beautiful film, Ozu’s last, and although not very much happens by way of story – a daughter leaves the family home and gets married – there is a lot going on.

Each shot is informed by a calm compassion, an awareness of life’s transience and frequent injustice, as well as being perfectly composed – not least this director’s renowned ‘pillow shots’.  The dynamic is provided by a widower’s slow realisation that he’s using his daughter for his own convenience.  He has never remarried, it not seeming to be necessary, but that’s only because his daughter has borne the brunt, taken up the slack.  How he wakes up to her plight and places her happiness before his own; that’s the engine at the heart of the film and the main reason why it’s ultimately so moving.

Something else to pick up on is how Americanised these Japanese are.  They wear western dress, drink whiskey in American bars, play or aspire to play golf, covet consumer goods like refrigerators and leather handbags.  Yet they retain a definite traditional formality.

One of those rare films that will never wholly surrender all of its meaning and mystery.  It’s showing again tomorrow, further details here.

The Power of Habit


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The Power of Habit

By Charles Duhigg

Random House Books, 2013

ISBN: 9781847946249

The Power of Habit

This engaging, well researched book explores the role of habit in our individual lives, in business and in society at large.

On one level, habits – in essence, learned behaviours – are both beneficial and necessary.  Put simply, we need them in order to function.  But on another level, they can be pernicious and parasitic to our well-being; consider the various addictions and quasi-addictions: alcoholism, gambling, smoking, over-eating…

To drive home his key points, Charles Duhigg deploys an adroit selection of diverse examples: some  moving and inspirational, others thought-provoking or entertaining.  Companies strive to ‘create a craving’ for their products (it is called seizing market share) and may track the buying habits of their customers through loyalty cards and the like.  Then again, Martin Luther King, Jr. achieved gargantuan social progress and immense influence by centreing a new habit in American political life, that of nonviolent protest.

Duhigg examines these and the myriad other guises habit may don, while also addressing the question of how we, as individuals, can change bad habits and create new ones.  There is no easy answer here but the key lies in what he calls the habit loop: a cue leading to a routine (the learned behaviour itself) in order to obtain a reward.  Belief is also important: the belief that you really can change, if you put your mind to it.  Belief enables you to overcome the inevitable crises and avoid relapse.

An accessible and worthwhile study, full of sound, evidence-based advice, which may well help you to achieve your goals.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

The 100-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared


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The 100-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared

Directed by Felix Herngren

Sweden, 2013

Cornerhouse, 6 July 2014

The 100-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared

Birkenstock’s are not worn by the old gimmer.

Instead, he walks around in some other (indeterminate) make of sandals.

With that crucial fact established, one can turn to the film itself, which is about an old man – a psychopathic pyromaniac, as far as one can tell – who wanders away from his nursing home.  All the people he meets are as kooky as he is.  Besides foiling a biker gang, he recounts his life and tells how he entered history.

As comedies go, it perhaps errs on the side of sentiment.  I’d have liked more of a deadpan flavour, or even a sizable dollop of callousness.

One big plus is the elephant.  There should be more films with elephants in them.

Sporadically amusing.

RNCM Symphony Orchestra


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RNCM Symphony Orchestra

The Bridgewater Hall, 27 June 2014

Russian soul and all that rigmarole.

Shostakovich’s stirring seventh symphony, the ‘Leningrad’ one, was the centrepiece.  All indefatigable spirit and unswerving endurance yet with plenty of nuance and complexity.  He requires and rewards close attention – let your mind wander once and you miss a lot.

This was one of three Russian works: Stravinsky’s Fireworks had started us off (much too short for me to get a proper handle on) then there had been Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Ryan Drucker splendid on piano.  The latter was very fine, yet later Shostakovich’s subtlety made you doubt that first impression, as though his was the true language of genuine emotion and Tchaikovsky’s just a gross repertoire of conventional gestures.

Of course, this isn’t true but it says something about Shostakovich’s powerful artistry.  He convinces.

RNCM Chamber Orchestra and Choir


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RNCM Chamber Orchestra and Choir

Holy Name Church, Manchester

26 June 2014

In the church where I usually attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, a concert with a baroque flavour.

We heard a mass, Haydn’s so-called Nelson Mass or ‘Mass in anxious times’, and before that C.P.E. Bach’s second symphony.  Some fine ornamental passages and lithe moments of frenetic acceleration in the symphony.

Rather more fitting to have been at the Karlskirche in Wien for the mass than the Holy Name Church, beautiful though it is, for Napoleon’s casual conquest of that city was the cause of Haydn’s anxiety.  He could easily have stormed it again.  Anyway, the sublime music overrode all.

Wonderful and moving.


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