A review of the important new film “Bombshell”

January 19th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The #MeToo movement has been a much-needed and long-overdue exposition of the scale and severity of sexual harassment especially in the workplace. This important film sets out how one powerful man – Roger Ailes, the founder of the hugely successful Fox News television network – was eventually brought down for his appalling behaviour (although his abrupt departure from the network was still richly rewarded by the Murdoch family). John Lithgow bravely takes on this most unsympathetic of roles where padding and prosthetics make him fit this vile individual.

But this is – as it should be – a work with stand-out performances for women; no less than three of them. Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron play the real-life victims Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly respectively, both high-profile anchors on the network, while Margot Robbie portrays fictional character Kayla Pospisil who represents a composite of some of the many other women who were abused. Theron – who was also executive producer – is especially impressive, looking and sounding so different from her natural persona and so like Kelly herself. 

The film has a flashy, jerky style with a succession of names, dates and voiceovers coming at the viewer, so it is no surprise to note that the writer is Jay Roach who successfully used a similar approach with the complex work “The Big Short”. This adds to the inevitable fact that this is uncomfortable viewing – as, given the subject, it should be – and, since I share a first name with Ailes and this name is repeated constantly, I found it particularly unsettling. But it should be seen and it should be discussed.

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How has democracy fared in the last 30 years? Some rough times, but some causes for hope.

January 18th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

If you have a bit of time for a read this weekend, this article from the “Journal of Democracy” is well worth your attention.

The piece concludes:

“It would be wrong to end this overview on a purely pessimistic note. Over the past century, democracy has gone through many ups and downs. The current crisis is not nearly as severe as the one that struck in the 1930s, when fascism took hold in the heart of Europe. And that crisis arguably was rivaled by the loss of confidence in democracy that beset the West during the manifold troubles of the 1970s. The spark that animated the transitions of 1989–91 is still alive in many parts of the world. In just the past few years, Ukraine, Algeria, Sudan, Nicaragua, Armenia, and Hong Kong have all seen the emergence of mass protests against authoritarian government, even if these did not always lead to successful democratic transitions. The Czech Republic, Georgia, Romania, Slovakia, and even Russia have seen popular pushback against corruption and oligarchic control of the democratic process.

Brexit has fractured the British political system in a way that guarantees no other EU country will soon follow the British path. It is not clear that British voters themselves, if they had a chance to redo their decision, would now make the same choice that they did back in June  2016. While Donald Trump has challenged many of America’s check-and-balance institutions, they have largely held; the most important check, an electoral one, may be forthcoming in 2020. Over the long run, demographics do not seem to favor populism; young people continue to move out of rural areas and into big cities.

In order to get to the long run, however, we must first survive the short run. Today, there are two opposite trends in the world: The first is social fragmentation and its concomitant, the decline of the authority of mediating institutions, primarily in established democracies. The second is the rise of new centralized hierarchies in authoritarian states. Surviving the present means rebuilding the legitimate authority of the institutions of liberal democracy, while resisting those powers that aspire to make nondemocratic institutions central.”

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Birthday greetings to Michelle (and Catrin) – and a review of “Becoming”

January 17th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Today is the birthday of former American First Lady Michelle Obama (as well as my granddaughter no 1 Catrin) and this is as good an excuse as any to reprint my review of her bestselling biography “Becoming” and to recommend it to you (if you haven’t already read it).

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Barack and Michelle Obama occupied the White House for the eight yeara 2009-2017. He has already written a memoir – but only of the first three decades of his life – in the form of the 1995 work “Dreams From My Father” but he has yet to write about his time as President. She has now written a memoir of the first five or so decades of her life which includes, but does not major on, her time as First Lady. When “Becoming” was published in mid November 2018, it sold more copies than any other book published in the United States in 2018, breaking the record in just 15 days. It has since achieved outstanding sales all around the world and become a genuine literary phenomenon.

It is very well-written, having been researched and structured by a team of excellent writers led by journalist Sara Corbett. Above, though, it tells a remarkable story in a revealing and insightful manner, making this a joy to read. 

A working class black woman raised on the South Side of Chicago improbably manages to become a graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School before starting her career as an attorney and then taking on a series of roles with a strong social justice agenda. And she meets and marries the man who will just as improbably become the first black President of the United States. By the time she leaves the White House, she has raised two wonderful daughters, supported her husband with utter professionalism, created a White House vegetable garden, launched four major initiatives supporting childen and veterans – and meanwhile “we’d managed two terms in office without a major scandal”.

How was this possible? 

It started with her own talent and determination. She studied and worked incredibly hard and describes herself as “a control freak” and “a box checker – marching to the resolute beat of effort/result” before she fell in love with Barack, an event which she calls “my swerve”. It was buttressed by wonderfully supportive parents and then great friends and mentors. She records how in turn she has always tried to encourage others – especially girls and women of colour – to aim high. And it was enabled by the transformative power of education at both her schools and colleges. But she has always suffered from an kind of imposter syndrome, never quite believing that she was good enough. Her life has not been trouble-free and she candidly refers to smoking pot, having a miscarriage, and needing IVF as well as fighting with and yelling at Barack and she and her husband using counselling to work through a rough patch in their marriage.

This memoir is very much about how Michelle Obama became the immensely impressive woman that she is and not so much about her famous husband. Barack does not appear in the text until a quarter of the way through the book; only three-quarters in do we reach her time in the White House; and the second presidential term is covered in merely a couple of dozen pages. While Barack Obama may be the consummate politician, Michelle Obama makes it very clear in this memoir that, at every stage of her husband’s political career, she was reluctant for him to enter the election. The price was so high – for her own aspirations as a talented professional woman and for their daughters who would see so much less of their father and, once he was President, have to live their lives in a kind of security bubble. 

Yet, in the end, she always backed his decision to run and gave him her total support. For herself, she makes it clear that “I’ve never been a fan of politics” and that at times she found it “demoralizing, infuriating, sometimes crushing” and she is adamant that “I have no intention of running for office, ever”.

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Feeling cold? Try “Frozen”.

January 15th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Frozen”

“Frozen” will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first film seen by my granddaughter Catrin (one month short of her third birthday). We saw it with her little friend James (just three months older) who was also making his first visit to the cinema. Both sat through all 102 minutes totally transfixed and then at the end cried because they did not want it to finish. 

This offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios tells the tale of two huge-eyed royal sisters from the kingdom of Arendelle: Queen Elsa who has a power to freeze things that grows uncontrollably, leading her to flee the kingdom, and Princess Anna who is determined to find her sister, while coping with two very different suitors, a crazy reindeer and a talking snowman.

The visuals are magical even in 2D (we judged that the 3D version would be sensory overload for a first movie on the big screen) and there are plenty of songs – notably the empowering “Let It Go” and the exuberant “For The First Time In Forever” – and humour plus a ice monster that had the kids jumping. 

“Frozen” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Meanwhile Catrin’s parents took her to see the movie again and then bought her the DVD the first day it went on sale. Over succeeding months and years, the film became an absolute phenomenon. 

“Frozen II”

in 2013, “Frozen: changed the lives of so many children (and their parents) in a storming success that generated $1.2 billion at the box office. We’ve had to wait six years for the sequel and now my granddaughter Catrin is almost nine and by the time, I managed to take her along to the movie, she had already seen it three times. 

Naturally all the loveable characters are back: sisters Elsa (the one with the ice powers) and Anna (ever loyal) plus Kristoff (now a suitor) and snowman Olaf (endlessly recombining). The new adventure involves a quest to resolve a challenge to the future of Arendelle and another slew of meaningful songs (notably “Into The Unknown” and “Show Yourself”). The animation is even more spectacular. What’s not to like? 

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A review of the Sam Mendes film “1917”

January 12th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Director Sam Mendes stunned cinema-goers with his opening sequence for the James Bond movie “Spectre”, set during The Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, when it appeared to be shot in one take of seven minutes (actually done in three shots). In retrospect, we can see that this was just a trial run for Mendes since the hugely ambitous “!917” appears to be a single take for the entire two-hour film (it isn’t, of course, but most viewers will not spot the cuts).

The most impressive cinematic work that I have seen that does truly involve just a single take is the oddly captivating “Russian Ark”. In “1917”, the single-take approach gives the work powerful tension and the viewer strong engagement in what is a genuinely immersive experience. The technique enables the narrative to appear to run in more-or-less real time to represent a matter of hours in April 1917. 

The plot – inspired by stories told by Mendes’ grandfather who served on the Western Front in the First World War – involves British Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Scofield (George MacKay) – being instructed to cross ‘no man’s land’ and abandoned German lines to reach 1,600 British troops – including Blake’s brother – intending to launch a dawn attack in ignorance of a German trap. The power of the story is helped by the casting of two leads who are newcomers, but there are brief camees from Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbach.

Interestingly, although we do see odd Germans, we never really view their faces – they are an anonymous enemy.Will the two lance corporals reach the attack zone in time and will they be able to prevent a military massacre? The production design (Dennis Gassner) and cinematography (Roger Deakins) are brilliant and some scenes are almost surreal (notably the nighttime sequences).

The blasted wasteland, the clinging mud, the huge water-filled craters, the stripped tree trunks, the carcasses of man and horse everywhere, all represent a Dante-like nightmare as the odyssey unfolds and one challenge follows another. Unfortunately the dialogue is sometimes stilted (Mendes himself was co-writer) and some of the scenes are a bit hackneyed. But overall this is a cinematic tour-de-force that will leave the viewer exhausted rather than exhilerated. 

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A review of the latest film version of “Little Women”

January 7th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Little Women” has now been made into a feature film as often as the number of daughters in the much-loved novel by Louisa May Alcott: by George Cukor in 1933, by Mervyn Le Roy in 1949, by Gillian Armstrong in 1994, and now by Greta Gerwig who wrote as well as directed.

Gerwig has assembled a fine, international cast for the mid 19th century American March girls: Irish Saoirse Ronan as the free-spirited author Jo (a representation of Alcott herself), British Florence Pugh and Emma Watson as the painter Amy and more traditional Meg respectively, and Australian Eliza Scanlen as the sickly Beth. A strong support cast includes Laura Dern, Chris Cooper and the legendary Meryl Streep.

For someone like me who has not read the novel, the non-linear timeline with repeated flash-backs can be confusing, but the whole thing is a sheer delight.

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So what exactly is 20/20 vision?

January 5th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

It’s 2020 and the new year has led to lots of media references to 20/20 vision. The implication is usually that such vision is perfect, but this is too simplistic. So what exactly is 20/20 vision?

The term 20/20 and similar fractions are visual acuity measurements. They also are called Snellen fractions, named after Herman Snellen, the Dutch ophthalmologist who developed this eyesight measurement system in 1862.

In the Snellen visual acuity system, the top number of the Snellen fraction is the viewing distance between the patient and the eye chart. In the United States, this distance typically is 20 feet; in the UK it is 6 metres (therefore 20/20 is equal to 6/6).

At this testing distance, the size of the letters on one of the smaller lines near the bottom of the eye chart has been standardised to correspond to “normal” visual acuity — this is the “20/20 (6/6)” line. If you can identify the letters on this line but none smaller, you have normal 20/20 (6/6) visual acuity.

The increasingly larger letter sizes on the lines on the Snellen chart above the 20/20 (6/6) line correspond to worse visual acuity measurements (20/25; 20/32; etc.); the lines with smaller letters below the 6/6 line on the chart correspond to visual acuity measurements that are even better than 20/20 vision (e.g. 20/16; 20/10).

On most Snellen charts, the smallest letters correspond to 20/10 visual acuity. If you have 20/10 visual acuity, your eyesight is twice as sharp as that of a person with normal (20/20) vision.

So it is quite possible to see better than 20/20. In fact, most people with young, healthy eyes are capable of identifying at least some of the letters on the 20/15 (6/5 in the UK) line or even smaller letters on the Snellen chart.

Now you know …

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What kind of country is Iran?

January 3rd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

For reasons which I don’t have to explain, the country of Iran is now in news headlines around the world. But what do you actually know about this powerful yet opaque nation?

There are two ways of looking at Iran.

First, we can look at the history and politics of this complex country. I have reviewed two useful books and you can read my reviews here.

I wrote:

“The system of government that Khomeini instituted and which is still in force today is known as velayat-e faqih which translates as ‘the regency of the theologian’. It is a stark contrast and contradiction to the historic position of the Islamic clergy which can be charaterised as ‘quietism’ – the belief that the world of the spiritual and the political should remain separate. A fundamental feature of the system of velayat-e faqih is a structure of power which runs parallel to the regular police and army, based around the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a body created by Khomeini and now involving a domestic security force called the Basij and a force supporting overseas’ operations called the Quds (Jerusalem), numbering in total some 125,000.”

Second. we can look at the people and places that make up this fascinating nation. I have visited the country and you can read my account here.

I concluded:

“We loved Iran. It delivered all that we wanted in terms of fascinating ancient sites and fabulous Islamic architecture without presenting any administrative or political difficulties. Above all, the people were so welcoming and friendly. The country has enormous potential as a tourist destination but, so long as it retains its current policies in relation to the development of nuclear weapons and the promotion of Middle Eastern terrorism, it will be the subject of international opprobrium and tourists will stay away. That would be a shame. The country has so much to offer and its people want you to go there.”

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A review of “The Irishman” – destined to be a classic movie

December 31st, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Netflix, which funded this movie, has given us a classic. Most viewers will stream it at home and probably watch it over a couple of evenings, but I made a point of catching it at the cinema when of course I saw it one sitting (it runs to an incredible three and a half hours but does not feel like it).

Following “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, this is a return to the gangster genre by veteran film-maker Martin Scorsese who is now in his late 70s. The story is based on the Charles Brandt book “I Heard You Paint Houses”, which is Mafia euphemism for splattering the walls with blood, and the script is by Steven Zaillian, whose credits include writing “American Gangster”. All the main characters really did populate post-war America and a fair amount of factual detail is offered, but the central plot point – the murder of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa – is speculative and controversial.

To tell the tale, Scorsese has brought together a dream cast: Robert De Niro as the eponymous Philadelphia-born truck driver Frank Sheeran who becomes both a Mafia hit man and senior labour union operative; Joe Pesci as Mafia boss Russell Bufalino who is mentor to and protector of Sheeran; and Al Pacino – who has not worked with Scorsese before – as Hoffa, the union baron who thinks that he can defy the Mafia.

What takes the superb performances of these three leads to another level is the use of technology to de-age them so that they can represent their characters over a period of decades. Very quickly, the viewer simply takes this astonishing transformation for granted. But this is a very macho movie with only peripheral roles for women.

De Niro portrays Sheeran as emotionally stunted except when required by one of his bosses to eliminate the other; Pesci gives an understated performance as Bufalino but he makes the seemingly anodyne words “It is what it is” a chilling sentence of death; Pacino, who is known for his emotional tirades in various films, is well-cast as the mercurial Hoffa and it is interesting to compare his rendition with that of Jack Nicholson who was the Teamsters boss in “Hoffa” (a film which does not feature Sheeran at all).

The framing device for “The Irishman” is a revelatory exposition by Frank Sheeran in a Catholic care home in which we do not know to whom he is speaking (the viewer?) and in which he admits far more than he is prepared to tell the priest attending to his final days – a period of gangster’s life that we normally never see in this genre. But then Scorsese’s movie is so different in so many ways. 

You can read my review of the film “Hoffa” here.

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A review of “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker”

December 30th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Over 40 years after the “Star Wars” cinematic saga began, we have the ninth – and presumably last – episode in the three trilogies originally envisaged by George Lucas and I’ve enjoyed seeing each movie immediately it appeared on the big screen. The honour of closing the franchise goes to director and co-writer J J Abrams back from helming Episode VII.

Among the multitude of characters, this is essentially a story about Rey played by Daisy Ridley and, over the three films of the final trilogy, both the character and the actor have developed considerably so that she is now the eponymous Skywalker. She is well-balanced by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) with whom she has an ambiguous relationship.

However, this is a franchise where characters disappear but go on to reappear, where persons die but somehow return, and even where an actress (Carrie Fisher) can die but still have a role (unused footage from an earlier movie was fitted into the narrative).

It’s all immensely entertaining with lots of fight and battle sequences, some new developments (like stormtroopers that can fly), the occasional new personage (like the underused Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell), and the tying up of many of the loose ends. But essentially this is a repeat of so many tropes and situations and the return of so many characters that, as with the previous episode, too much is going on and the whole thing runs rather too long (almost two and a half hours).

Also some of it – such as the role of a glass tetrahedron – doesn’t make much sense. Oh, if you don’t blink, at the very end you might catch the first lesbian kiss of the franchise.

You can read my reviews of all nine “Star Wars” films here.

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