09 November 2020

Film review: Somm, into the Bottle (2015), by Jason Wise, ****

Synopsis

Sequel to the previous Somm movie of 2012, this documentary takes the viewer into the private world of famed producers (who open exceptional bottles for the occasion).


Review

A peek into cellars that most of us humans will never get into, and a good dose of self-irony about a profession that means different things to different people. Definitely recommended after the first.

We learn that the word "spirit", used for alcoholic beverages, comes from the fact that wine has been used in religious functions for a long time, it takes the "spirit" out of the body, especially when abused! Not sure it is true, but it sounds fun.

We also learn that Julius Cesar instructed his legionaries to drink at least a liter of wine a day, more before going into battle.

One somm opines that aging wine in wood is like adding salt to food: you may need it to exalt the flavor, but not too much. Some may not like it at all, of course. But if you do choose to oak a wine, beware: your barrel is going to be like a wife for your wine, choose well or your wine will pay the price for your mistake!

A few spoke about scoring wines. Some find it useful, some hate it as an oversimplification that is not reliable: no single somm will score the same wines the same way if given the same bottles blind over again.


01 November 2020

Film review: The Barolo Boys (2014) by Paolo Casalis and Tiziano Gaia, ****

The story of a group of Barolo producers, friends, colleagues and competitors at the same time, who broke with tradition to find their own call.

Barolo was mostly cheap, unknown and unloved until the early 1980s. It was a difficult wine, harsh, unfriendly, tannic, and it required a very long time to age and become more pleasant.

A bunch of producers, led by Gaia and Altare among others, decided to change that: they started reducing yields by green harvesting (removing some bunches before they ripen, so as to leave fewer but better bunches on the vine) and using new and small oak barrels.

The result was amazing, Barolo became well known, expensive and veery much loved. But not everyone was happy





 

26 October 2020

Arrivo a Roma da Londra e tampone COVID-19

Decido di andare in Italia, e prendo l'aereo. Volo British Airways, partenza in orario. 

Dopo il decollo ci danno 3 moduli da compilare per le autorità italiane. Una pagina ciascuno, scritto fittissimo, con un carattere dimensione 4 o 5, quasi illeggibile. Bisogna inserire sempre le stesse informazioni: nome, cognome, indirizzo, recapito telefonico, ecc. firma con data e ora, OK fatto. 

Appena arrivati in aeroporto la polizia di dice che uno dei moduli non va bene, è vecchio, e ne dobbiamo riempire un altro, che però è identico! Passato il controllo doganale ci informano che la postazione aeroportuale per effettuare il test COVID-19 è chiusa, funziona solo fino alle 18. Invece ce ne sta un'altra, aperta 24 ore, al parcheggio di lunga sosta, a qualche km di distanza. Mi consigliano di andarci adesso (sono le 22) perché se tornassi domani, come sarebbe mia facoltà fare, troverei una fila d'attesa più lunga. 

Ritiro l'auto in affitto e vado al parcheggio lunga sosta, dove arrivo alle 22.30. 

C'è una fila di un centinaio di macchine, non male dopotutto. Passa una mezz'ora e sono arrivato allo sbarramento, l'impiegato mi fa passare e... mi trovo a fare un'altra fila in un parcheggio adiacente! 

Passa ancora un'ora e finalmente ci fanno passare, ci dicono di andare dritto e poi a sinistra, seguendo i cartelli. Detto, fatto, ed eccoci in un terzo parcheggio, con ancora centinaia di auto davanti a noi. Sono le 23.30 circa.

Qui la fila dura circa due ore. Arriviamo quindi alla postazione della Croce Rossa per fare il test e ci chiedono se avevamo compilato "il modulo". Quale modulo? Un altro modulo con nome, cognome ecc che però nessuno ci ha dato. Un impiegato ce lo fornisce e ci dobbiamo mettere da parte per riempirlo, mentre ci passano davanti quelli arrivati dopo di noi. Uno si è addormentato in macchina, l'addetto a smistare il traffico bussa sul finestrino, gli strilla di svegliarsi, niente. Alla fine apre la porta della sua auto e il tizio si sveglia di soprassalto. Sono le 2 di mattina. 

Finalmente una crocerossina brasiliana (si capisce dall'inconfondibile accento, anche se parla un ottimo italiano) molto gentile e professionale ci fa il tampone, poi ci dice di aspettare in un parcheggio adiacente per il risultato, che ci sarà mandato per SMS. Però i nostri numeri di telefono sono inglesi, ci chiede se abbiamo un numero di cellulare italiano. No, non ce l'abbiamo. Come non ce l'hanno tutti i visitatori stranieri che arrivano a Fiumicino! 

Ci dice di aspettare comunque, e se non riceviamo nulla entro mezz'ora meglio tornare a chiedere. Intanto sono le 02:30 di mattina, son 4 ore che siamo qui. Non c'è modo di avere nulla da mangiare, neanche acqua da bere. 

Però c'è un bagno, a circa 500 metri di distanza, molto pulito e ben illuminato. Ne approfitto...

Ecco che dopo mezz’ora arriva il sospirato SMS, sul mio cellulare col numero inglese, sono negativo, buona notizia, si va a casa. Sono le 3 del mattino.



18 October 2020

Film review: Somm (2012) by Jason Wise, ****


Review

Four sommeliers attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world. 

The documentary follows them step by step as they prepare and study together, meticulously, for many months, at the expense of their normal lives, their loved ones and their emotional balance.

The test is ruthless, both theory and practice (a blind tasting) demand superhuman qualities, memory, and not a little luck. In the end, those who pass join a club of only some 200 people who ever passed the test and are catapulted to the top of the wine world.




19 August 2020

FIlm review: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) by Jan Kounen, ****


Synopsys

In 1913 the first performance of the ballet “Le sacre du printemps” took place in Paris. The composer, Igor Stravinsky, is whistled for his radically new music. But in the audience there is a woman who is intoxicated by the dissonant rhythms and feels that this music is just as groundbreaking as her fashion creations: Coco Chanel. 

Seven years passed before the choreographer Sergej Diagilew introduced Coco to Igor Stravinsky, who had since fled Russia to Paris. Coco Chanel invites the penniless composer to live with his lung-sick wife and children in their luxurious villa in Garches and to revisit his spring sacrifice there while she creates the first synthetic perfume with Chanel No. 5. The novel is apparently based on a true story: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky actually had an affair.


Review

A captivating story of two icons of the XX century, coming from two entirely different worlds (fashion and music) but sharing a revolutionary approach to
their work. Strawinsky owes his professional survival to a woman who almost destroys his family.

Book  
 Film

27 July 2020

Film review: Queen of the Desert (2015) by Werner Herzog, *****

Synopsys

Gertrude Bell, a daughter of wealthy British parents, has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions and the British aristocracy bring her only boredom. She wants to study, learn and above all see the world.

Aspiring to have at least some kind of activity in her life, Gertrude decides to find freedom and move to be with her uncle, who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. From Iran she moves on to Amman and Damascus, some of the main political centers in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

So begins her lifelong adventure across the Arab world, a journey marked by danger, a passionate affair with a British officer, Henry Cadogan, and an encounter with the legendary T.E. Lawrence.

With an all-star cast, including Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, Damien Lewis and James Franco, Queen of the Desert is the uplifting, inspiring and extraordinary true story of one woman who, against all odds, changed the course of history.


Review

A gripping historical film on the life of an extraordinary woman who carved the life she wanted out of a hard world made for men.

We learn a lot about life in the latter part of the Turkish occupation of what is now Jordan and Iraq, areas where nomads roamed free without borders and ancient religions perpetuated irreconcilable conflicts.

Never seeking power she ended up making political decisions that are still relevant in the Middle East a century later. It would have been interesting if the movie had shown why she helped certain tribes rise to power through British help and not others. In the end, a successful but unhappy woman who spent most of her life alone.



21 May 2020

Film review: Naked Island (1960), by Kaneto Shindo, ****

Synopsis

Filmed on the virtually deserted Setonaikai archipelago in south-east Japan, Naked Island was made in the words of its director "as a 'cinematic poem' to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature". Kaneto Shindo, director of Onibaba (MoC #13) and Kuroneko (MoC #14), made the film with his own production company, Kindaï Eiga Kyokai, who were facing financial ruin at the time. Using one-tenth of the average budget, Shindo took one last impassioned risk to make this film. With his small crew, they relocated to an inn on the island of Mihari where, for two months in early 1964, they would make what they considered to be their last film.

Naked Island tells the story of a small family unit and their subsistence as the only inhabitants of an arid, sun-baked island. Daily chores, captured as a series of cyclical events, result in a hypnotizing, moving, and beautiful film harkening back to the silent era. With hardly any dialogue, Shindo combines the stark 'Scope cinematography of Kiyoshi Kuroda with the memorable score of his constant collaborator Hikaru Hayashi, to make a unique cinematic document.

Shindo, who had worked with both Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa, shot to international fame with the astounding Children of Hiroshima (1952). Eight years later, the BAFTA-nominated Naked Island won the Grand Prix at Moscow International Film Festival (where Luchino Visconti was a jury member). It is now considered to be one of Shindo's major works, and its success saved his film company from bankruptcy. The experience of making Naked Island led Shindo to appreciate 'collective film production', and has been his preferred method of making films ever since. The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to release Naked Island for the first time on home video in the UK.


Review

A strange film in many ways: itis not a silent movie but all you hear is background noises and the desperate cry of a woman when she loses her son. Few other words are uttered in the film. The story of a couple and their two sons on an island off the coast of Japan in the immediate post-war years. They have to row their way to the mainland several times a day to fetch fresh water, take the kids to school, buy necessities.

It is a very repetitive film, with scenes of rowing and carrying buckets of water displayed over and over again, but in a way I think it has to be to depict such a lifestyle. Imagine how repetitive it must have been for real people who had to suffer through this. Having said that, it is perhaps a bit too repetitive!

Beautiful photography in black and white.



13 May 2020

Film review: A Separation (2011) by Asghar Farhadi *****

Synopsis

The stand out film of the 2011 Berlin Film Festival and winner of the Golden Bear, A Separation is a suspenseful and intelligent drama detailing the fractures and tensions at the heart of Iranian society.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the film boasts a range of superb performances from the ensemble cast who collectively received the Silver Bears for both Best Actor and Best Actress at the Berlinale.

The compelling narrative is driven by a taut and finely written script rooted in the particular of Iranian society but which transcends its setting to create a stunning morality play with universal resonance.


When his wife (Leila Hatami) leaves him, Nader (Peyman Moadi) hires a young woman (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his suffering father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). But he doesn't know his new maid is not only pregnant but also working without her unstable husband's (Shahab Hosseini) permission. Soon, Nader finds himself entangled in a web of lies manipulation and public confrontations. A Separation is the first-ever Iranian film to be awarded the Golden Bear.


Review

A universal story of family power struggle and love, all made more stressful by the strictures of Iranian society and Islamic rules. Never predictable, the plot keeps the viewer glued to the screen. Also an interesting peek into middle-class Iran, a category of professionals and white-collar workers that does not share much with poorer, more traditional and religious strata of society. In the end, one gets to reflect on the vault of truth: is it always a sin to lie?


02 May 2020

Book review: Cixi (2013) by Jung Chang, ***

Synopsys

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi - the most important woman in Chinese history - brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like 'death by a thousand cuts' and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot and also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing's Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs - with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences.

Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman. (inside flap of the book)



Review

Lots of information here, as usual for Chang. She digs deeper than anyone in Chinese sources and is very meticulous in her writing. One learns not only about Cixi but also about much of the troubled history that surrounded her long reign. Often the reader is led by the hand through the lives of the many characters depicted, and one has the impression of living in the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. A real light on the life of late imperial China.

The major problem of the book is that the author is in love with her protagonist. This produces a hagiography rather than a biography. Cixi is praised for much, too much, and hardly ever criticized. When she is criticized, then immediately follows an excuse for her mistakes (of which there were many) or her shortsightedness.



Cixi did a lot of good, but also a lot of evil, and only the former is described in this book. Perhaps this is because Chang seems to be in love with female figures of Chinese history. Her Wild Swans remains my favorite and I am looking forward to reading her new book on the Soong sisters, hoping that it will be more impartial than this one.

Have a look at my list of books on China reviewed in this blog.


10 April 2020

Film review: Résistence naturelle (2014), By Jonathan Nossiter, **

Synopsys

Ten years after the landmark wine documentary Mondovino, filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter returns to the subject, documenting the drastic shifts that have affected the industry in the time since. Natural Resistance follows four Italian winegrowers.

First is Giovanna Tiezzi lives in a converted 11th-century monastery, and grow grains, fruit, and wine in a way that links to their ancient heritage. She laments that much of Tuscany's vineyards have been bought up by foreigners, but then is proud that her region is a leader in quality vine cultivation.

Corrado Dottori is a refugee from industrial Milan, who inherited his grandfather's farmstead and tends to it as an expression of agricultural social justice. he studied capitalism at the Bocconi, he says, so as to criticize it better.

Elena Pantaleoni works her father's vineyards and strives to create a utopian reality.

Finally, Stefano Belloti, the controversial radical farmer poet, disrupts the long-established rules of farming from his avant-garde property in Piedmont. (Synopsys partly from IBMD.com)


Review

A lot of ideology in this hastily put together film, which is really only a compilation of Nossiter's chats with the above growers over some wine.

The title "resistance" recalls the fighters of World War II against fascism and nazism, and it is not by chance. Nossiter, inserts several clips of Mussolini speaking from a balcony and SS guards rounding up civilians in this movie, and contrasts them with the heroic organic farmers, his partisans of today.

The other word in the title is "natural". The film compares and contrasts it with "artificial". And artificial (made by man with material that exists in nature) is not the same as "synthetic" (made through synthesis, transforming elements that do not exist in nature). Of course, all wine is artificial, it does not exist in nature.

Several of the protagonists complain about the DOC rules being abstract, detached from the criteria for quality that was the original reason for being created. In this they are right, and it has long widely been accepted that many top-quality Italian wines do not have, seek or need DOC certification.

The film nostalgically recalls when, in Italy, but the numbers are similar in other European countries, 60% of the people lived and worked on farms. Now it is about 2-3% depending on how you count it. Of course, every country that modernizes and develops moves from the primary sector of the economy (agriculture) to the secondary (manufacturing) and on to the tertiary (services). This brings higher standards of living, I find it hard to argue one should go back to the happy past.

The speakers are generally critical of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). They argue it is a conspiracy to hand agriculture to big multinational corporations. Let alone that in several countries, Italy among them, EU subsidies (managed by regional administrations) are often left unused because small farmers do not bother to claim them.

They also argue that hygiene checks are targeted to create problems for small wine producers while they close an eye on the big ones. I do not know about the accuracy of this sweeping statement but they do not provide any evidence.

I also noticed a bias when a farmer shows Nossiter the difference between rich organic soil and standard vineyard next to it. The organic soil is a dark rich color and fluffy texture while the standard soil is hard and grey. But Belotti digs his organic sample near a plant and the other one on a pathway where constant traffic is expected to compact the soil. A careless test at best.

In sum, this film is more of an emotional call to arms than an analysis of the undoubted biological benefits of organic farming.


You can buy the DVD here