Joe Biden has now served a year as US President, so how’s it going?

January 20th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I’m massively interested in American politics and regularly attend relevant courses and lectures – currently online – provided by London’s City Literary Institute and delivered by the college principal Mark Malcolmson. Today marks the first anniversary of Joe Biden’s tenure as U S President and this evening’s lecture reviewed the events of the last year and the prospects for this year.

Let’s start with Biden’s achievements.

Above all, he has restored stability and dignity to the White House. In the face of the pandemic, he achieved a rapid roll-out of vaccines and a substantial revival of the economy with the passage of a huge stimulus bill. Also vital to the economic health of the nation, he has won Congressional support for a massive infrastructure bill. Employment levels are high.

Internationally, Biden has recognised the climate emergency and taken the US back into the Paris climate treaty. He has ended US troop deployment in Afghanistan, reopened talks with Iran on the nuclear deal, and stood firm in defence of Ukraine and Taiwan.

But there have been many disappointments.

The manner in which the US left Afghanistan was disastrous and marked a major fall in his popularity ratings which are now very low. While his approach to the pandemic has been so much more active than that of Trump. testing for covid has been inadequate and infections have hit a record high. While the economy is doing well, inflation has soared and people are worried about the cost of living.

His legislative agenda in Congress is now stalled with his Build Back Better Bill and Voting Rights Bill both blocked. The fundamental problem for Biden is that Democrats have a very small majority in the House and are tied in the Senate with two Democratic Senators refusing to support some of his legislative proposals and to restrict use of the filibuster.

Things are not looking good for Biden and the Democrats for the mid-term elections in November when Republicans could take back control of both chambers.

Thea again Donald Trump has his own problems. The House inquiry into the insurrection of 6 January 2021 could yet lead to him being barred from future office, while the New York Attorney General is closing in on the financial irregularities at the Trump Organisation.

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A review of the new art house film “The Souvenir Part II”

January 18th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Writer and director Joanna Hogg always intended her story to be in two parts and originally wanted to film both segments back-to-back. However, there were funding issues, so the first film was released in late 2019 but we had to wait until early 2022 for the second. 

While the first part was an account of the toxic relationship between film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne in her first acting role) and her boyfriend Anthony, a drug addict who eventually dies from an overdose, the second is an examination of how Julie processes her grief, which in large part is through the making of a graduation film about the relationship.

This film-within-a-film structure means that viewers are sometimes unsure whether they are watching Joanna’s film or Julie’s film, but essentially both are just different ways of looking at the same thing and both are deeply personal and substantially autobiographical.

Comparing Part II with Part I, this latter film is lighter in tone (indeed there is a good deal of quiet humour) and easier to follow (it is one film nested in another although Julie’s film is surreal in taking us into a dream-like rabbit hole). In a captivating treatment, Honor Swinton Byrne is beguiling in the central role, although her character clearly confuses and irritates fellow members of the film crew because – like Joanna Hogg herself – she does not work through a detailed script but a general treatment which invites and indeed requires improvisation.

So this naturalistic art house work will not be to everyone’s taste, but the critics adore Hogg’s work and it has grown on me over the last three years.

Note: I saw Part II at the British Film Institute in a preview screening a few weeks before general release. At the conclusion, the audience gave it a rapturous applause. There was then an interview with 61 year old Hogg whose answers were somewhat meandering and unclear. At one point, she confessed: “Really, I don’t know what I’m doing”. So we need to make allowances – after all, this is art.

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That time when I almost went to work at 10 Downing Street …

January 17th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

All this talk of activity in 10 Downing Street reminds me that, following the appointment of Jim Callaghan as Labour Prime Minister in 1976, I was offered a position in his Political Office at No 10.

Since it was a political post, it could not be paid by public funds and sufficient funding from trade unions was not forthcoming. So I remained a Special Adviser (or SpAd) to Merlyn Rees who soon moved from being Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to Home Secretary.

During my four years service with the Wilson/Callaghan Government, I never saw a single case of excessive drinking in Whitehall.

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A review of the new coming-of-age movie “Licorice Pizza”

January 16th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Paul Thomas Anderson has both written and directed a film set in California’s San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s and everything about the work – the clothes, the decor, the music, the television, the politics, even the style of the graphics – is redolent of the period.

At its heart – and the movie does have real heart – is an unlikely relationship between a 15 year old kid actor and entrepreneur called Gary and a 25 year old photographer’s assistant called Alana, but there are a variety of side stories that sometimes seem a little forced into the main narrative. 

The casting is eclectic. On the one hand, the two leads are in their first feature film: Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who was a frequent collaborator with Anderson, and Alana Haim, a singer who has had a number of music videos shot by Anderson. On the other hand, there are some heavy hitters with Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper giving strong performances in cameo roles. To add to the thespian mix, Alana’s parents and sisters are all portrayed by Haim’s real life family. It’s that kind of personal movie.

Indeed the film is full of characters and events and even castings inspired by Anderson’s early life and most viewers will have no idea of most of these allusions. Even the title will be a mystery (it is slang for a vinyl record). Therefore, although the lead characters are charming and the story often funny, one can’t help feeling that the work is uneven and somewhat self-indulgent. 

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What are the assets of the Cayman Islands?

January 14th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

As you might of guessed, this is trick question.

Currently I am reading “Seven Ways To Change The World: How To Fix The Most Pressing Problems We Face” by Gordon Brown. In the chapter on tax havens, he reveals that the the territory’s foreign assets are valued at an astonishing 1,500 times the size of its domestic economy.

These is because corporations are locating their assets in the Caribbean in order to evade taxation in the countries where they actually provide their products and services, earn their revenues, and make their profits. .

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How many passport holders are there on St Kitts and Nevis?

January 14th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

As you might of guessed, this is trick question.

Currently I am reading “Seven Ways To Change The World: How To Fix The Most Pressing Problems We Face” by Gordon Brown. In the chapter on tax havens, he reveals that the population of St Kitts and Nevis is a mere 50,000 or so, but that around 25,000 – that is, half as many again – hold passports but do not reside there.

These 25,000 individuals are, course, seeking to evade tax and on a huge scale.

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Three-fold increase of abuse imagery of 7-10-year-olds as IWF detects more child sexual abuse material online than ever before

January 13th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is the UK body established by industry to combat child abuse images online. It has just published its annual report and the headline messages are:

  • Record amount of child sexual abuse material taken down after action by IWF.
  • More reports investigated in 2021 than in the whole first 15 years of IWF’s existence.
  • Three-fold increase in imagery showing 7–10-year-olds who have been targeted and groomed by internet predators.
  • UK Government launching new campaign to help parents and carers spot the signs of online abuse and grooming.
  • Warning that devices can be an “open door” for sex predators to access children alone in their bedrooms.

From 2000-2005, I served as the first independent Chair of the IWF and I know what excellent work is carried out by the dedicated team there.

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In American politics, what is the filibuster and why does it need to change?

January 11th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Historically, activity in the Senate has tended to be less partisan and more individualistic than in the House of Representatives with a degree of cross-party co-operation called working “across the aisle”. But this situation has changed dramatically in recent decades with most voting now strictly on party lines.

Senate rules permit what is called a filibuster when a Senator, or a series of Senators, can speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a supermajority of three-fifths of the Senate (60 Senators, if all 100 seats are filled) brings debate to a close by invoking what is called cloture (taken from the French term for closure).

From 1917 to 1970 (53 years), there were only 58 cloture motions. From 1971 to 2006 (35 years), there were 928. From 2007 to 2021 (14 years), there have been 1,419. Currently abolition or at least restriction of the filibuster is a major issue of political debate.

President Joe Biden has reluctantly come to the conclusion that the filibuster should be abolished for voting rights legislation, but cannot persuade two Democratic senators to agree. So we still have stalemate.

You can learn more about the American political system here.

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A review of the “The King’s Man”

January 9th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Following the commercial success of “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2015) and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (2017), five years later we have “The King’s Man” which claims to be an origin story for this secret service of English gentlemen. However, none of the characters in the earlier movies feature in this prequel which is set in and around the First World War.

The director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn is the same though and we have the familiar over-the-top mixture of action, violence and humour. What is really different this time is the representation of so many historical characters and incidents by scriptwriters who clearly know their history but have delighted in twisting it to fit the Kingsman narrative. 

So we have Tom Hollander in the triple roles of British King George, German Kaiser Wilhelm and Russian Tsar Nicholas, Charles Dance as British General Kitchener, and an unrecognisable Rhys Ifans as the Russian mystic Rasputin with a host of brief appearances from the likes of Mata Hart and President Woodrow Wilson to Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler.

Crazy? That’s Matthew Vaughan for you. The good guys include actors Ralph Fiennes (M in the James Bond franchise), Djimon Hounsou (the black fighter in “Gladiator”) and Gemma Arterton (former Bond girl and “Tamara Drewe”), thus appealing to the elderly, ethnic and female demographics, while top baddie turns out to be a Scottish nationalist who out hangs out on top of a hugely tall mountain crag housing a farm of goats. 

Crackers? You bet – but a lot of fun, although turning the Great War into an action-comedy is uncomfortable at times. 

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A review of the new film “House Of Gucci” – set to win awards

January 9th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Any film directed by Ridley Scott – now in his mid 80s – is worth seeing and he has given us some absolute classics such as “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, “Thelma & Louise” and “Black Hawk Down”. Most of his movies are action stories but “House Of Gucci” is different. This is a film about character – like his previous offering “All The Money In The World” – and, though the real life story is set in the fashion industry, it is not a work about fashion but a examination of family and business rivalry. Starting in 1978, it is set over 20 years in a world of glamour and greed. 

At the heart of the intrigue is Patrizia Reggiani played by Lady Gaga. Now we knew that Lady Gaga could act because she was brilliant in the latest version of “A Star Is Born”. But, in that movie she was playing an likeable American singer on the ladder to success and in real life she is of course an American singer who has achieved stunning success. This time she is portraying an Italian office manager who is a much more complex and much less appealing character with shades of “Lady Macbeth” and she is terrific in the role. 

“House Of Gucci” though is a film overflowing with talent: Adam Driver as the awkward Maurizio, heir to 50% of Gucci; Jeremy Irons as his stern father Rudolfo; the veteran and venerable Al Pacino as Rudolfo’s brother Aldo who owns the other 50% of the company; an almost unrecognisable Jared Leto as Aldo’s hapless son Paolo; Salma Hayek as a manipulative clairvoyant. Even the minor roles are expertly cast. The dialogue, the delivery, the costumes, the sets, the music – everything is constructed with consummate skill. No detail is overlooked. This truly is a workshop in brilliant movie making. 

It is a long work of 2 hours 38 minutes and it will not be to the taste of those who need car chases and explosions in their films, but it is a delight to see Ridley Scott at the peak of his form.

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