A Fighting Chance

I recently read Elizabeth Warren’s autobiography A Fighting Chance which came out in March. Although at times it’s intensely personal, its historical and political aspects are really what make it an engaging read. It presents a compelling history of bankruptcy law in America, an overview of how financial deregulation since the 1980s has fuelled political corruption, and her often ill-fated attempts to fight these trends. It’s not quite Steinbeck, but as an epic on inequality it’s not a million miles away either, and it is definitely worth a read.
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Three Concerts in a Week

And they couldn’t have been more different. Last Thursday I had the privilege of seeing mclusky* at The Garage in Islington. I’ve been a big fan of theirs since uni, and because they broke up in early 2005 (before I’d ever considered coming to the UK), I figured I’d never get to see them. I bought tickets the minute I got the Songkick alert. The band has only performed once since then with a revised line-up, so there was a great atmosphere at the sold-out venue.
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Basin and Range

I’ve just read John McPhee’s Basin and Range for my book club. It’s not an easy book to summarize. Part itinerant tour of America’s geology, part history of geological theories, part dreamlike, hypnotic reflection on the formation of the world, it’s a mixture of nonfiction and beautiful prose that’s reminiscent of Carl Sagan. Continue reading

Down to the Bone

Several years ago I watched Winter’s Bone (2010) and thought it was quite good, opening my eyes to rural devastation in America. I read a bit about it and found out that the director, Debra Granik, had directed a film in 2004 called Down to the Bone. It aired in July on Film4 and I just got round to watching it. It shares with Winter’s Bone themes of poverty, drug abuse, and desperation, but it finds its desolation in the life of a coke-addicted mother in upstate New York, rather than in the grim family ties of the meth-addicted Ozarks.

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Quite enjoyed Leviathan (2014). The Book of Job adapted to modern Russia, about losing everything one values in life and all hope for the future. Like Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Bergman’s Winter Light, or Akin’s The Cut, it’s about whether a life of suffering can or should be endured (when you’ve lost possessions, people, and freedom). It shares with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Edge of the World, and Yol the stark indifference of nature to human endeavours, and with On the Waterfront, Touch of Evil, The Sweet Smell of Success (maybe even Brazil) the crippling powerlessness created by corruption. Like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance its slow takes are made even more difficult by being shot incredibly wide, and like The Searchers the worst violence takes place just out of frame, making it traumatically ambiguous and turning the audiences’ imaginations against them. It has a scene like the opening of The Grapes of Wrath that must be seen to be believed. It works on political, philosophical, religious, and personal levels as an inquest into deprivation, pain, and the meaning of life. ★★★★☆


A few weeks ago I watched eXistenZ (1999). I was surprised to realize that it’s the seventh David Cronenberg film I’ve seen. Not that I’ve avoided him, but I didn’t think I’d seen that many. The first I ever saw was The Fly (1986) which I think we had on Betamax when I was young. Unsurprisingly it left a pretty strong impression on me, particularly the graphic arm-wrestling scene, but having seen it again more recently I don’t think it’s actually that great of a film. Continue reading

A Field in England

I finally got around to watching A Field in England (2013) this weekend, and quite enjoyed it. It’s an odd, surreal film in which a motley group of deserters from the English Civil War (1640s) flees its violence only to meet stranger ends. With hallucinogens blurring the lines between reality and alchemy, it’s entertaining but not particularly narrative, a bit like a version of Dead Man (1995) set a few centuries earlier. I won’t say more about its plot as it is something better experienced than explained. I do think that the film marks a return to form for director Ben Wheatley, whose fantastic debut was the pitch black crime comedy Down Terrace (2009), featuring one of the most dysfunctional family in film history making a series of terrible decisions. The more commercial thriller Kill List (2011) followed, about contract killers on a macabre mission. It had some of the darkness but none of the comedy of Wheatley’s first film, and a rather weak dénouement despite a strong and atmospheric opening. I was disappointed by his next film Sightseers (2012), which had the promising premise of an unhinged couple combining a holiday in the countryside with an impromptu killing spree, but the comedy fell a bit flat which made it a bit of a struggle. A Field in England recaptures the effective mix of atmosphere, dark humour, and de-glamorized violence that Wheatley nailed in Down Terrace. Because of these two films I very much look forward to his next film, High Rise, based on a J.G. Ballard novel and featuring Jeremy Irons, and scheduled to come out in 2015.

My brews so far

This week I brewed my eleventh beer, and this is just to give a list of the beers I’ve brewed so far. If they come out well I may be posting more information and recipes. I’ve added my friends comments where I’ve gotten feedback.

  1. Nøgne Ø Baltic Porter, but it came out like an Imperial Porter as I underestimated evaporation. Complex, good but very strong.
  2. Morebeer Scottish 60 shilling ale, from an extract kit with steeping grains. Came out well. “Be delighted to be served this in a pub.”
  3. First Stab First Wort, an IPA that was first-wort hopped but did not come out with a good balance of dry/aroma hops to bitterness (very aromatic but not very bitter).
  4. Culloden Calling, a Scottish 80 shilling ale based on the 60 shilling but of my own recipe. “Your brew was great. Very smooth, subtle.”
  5. Obsession Fruit, a double IPA with passion fruit in secondary. Came out much better than the regular IPA, >100 IBU but well-balanced malt.
  6. Vanilla Sun, an attempt at cloning my memory of drinking Southern Tier’s créme brûlée beer that I haven’t tried for a few years. OTT beer, huge vanilla and sweetness offset by very high IBUs even for this high OG, hint of cardamom, burnt sugar to prime. “I loved the créme brûlée one.”
  7. She’s So Heavy, a Scottish wee heavy in the vein of the above. FG was too high so it’s a bit too sweet.
  8. Mock on the Mild Side, a mild still carbonating but probably with a bit too much tannins due to errors in the mash.
  9. Succexxxy, a fairly light milk stout that came out well-balanced and highly drinkable.
  10. There’s the Rhub, a hefeweizen, half wheat half Maris Otter, with rhubarb in the primary.
  11. Sudo Porter, a brown porter with 30% quinoa (a pseudocereal). Still in primary.

More to come. Next beer is likely to be another dark one as I’ve got a lot of chocolate and black malt at the minute.

Lone Star

Without knowing anything about it, I went into Lone Star (1996) expecting a sort of western homage, maybe something like the way that Unforgiven (1992) reworked elements of Shane (1953) for a modern audience. I was surprised to find that although it’s a dirge for the end of the west, it’s less like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and more like The Last Picture Show (1971). That is to say, it’s not a requiem for the lawlessness of the 19th Century, but actually for the end of an earlier era of the 20th. It’s enormous in scope, probably a bit more than Diner (1982) but a bit less than Terms of Endearment (1983), but similar in the number of subplots across generations that it deploys simultaneously. While Lone Star doesn’t have the same emotional authority or performances as these other films, it is in some ways more ambitious. Its interests are broad: family ties, betrayals and reconciliations, race relations, and corruption. And yet despite the breadth of focus it is never superficial. It engages in detail with the struggle of Mexicans, Native Americans, blacks, and whites not only to live together peacefully after terrible atrocities, but also with their desire for history to be represented fairly for each group, which the film shows to be no easy task. It does an admirable job of showing the effects of fathers on sons, and of living up to the standards of previous generations. I personally found none of the performances to be outstanding, but all of them are solid and rather understated, which works well with the thoughtful and reflective mood of the film.

The Unknown Known

Francine Stock hosts Q&A with director Errol Morris at Olympic Studios
Francine Stock hosts Q&A with director Errol Morris at Olympic Studios

A few nights ago I was fortunate enough to get to see a preview of Errol Morris’ film The Unknown Known (2013) at the lovely Olympic Studios cinema in Barnes. The film is a documentary in which Morris interviews Donald Rumsfeld about his career and political decisions. It focuses mainly on his second go round as Secretary of Defense under GW Bush (2001-2006), but his early career and first appointment by Ford (1975-1977) are also discussed. Continue reading