A review of the new blockbuster movie “Tenet”

August 29th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Tenet” is Christopher Nolan’s 11th film and I have viewed and admired all his previous work except his very first film which I’ve never seen. Of the movies that – like “Tenet” – Nolan wrote as well as directed, I was immensely impressed with “Memento” and “Inception” but struggled with the second half of “Interstellar”.

This is his biggest and boldest movie with a budget reputed to be around $200M and a plot whose ambition is overwhelming. Additionally this is the first major new film since five months of lockdown as a result of the coronavirus global pandemic, so both Nolan’s reputation and the revival of cinema-going are at stake. I made sure that I saw it within a couple of days of release and that I viewed it in IMAX.

From the get-go, the movie is attention-grabbing and, for the next two and a half hours, one is never less than gripped. The locations – Estonia, India, Italy, Denmark, Norway – are terrific and the action sequences – car chase, plane crash, catamaran ride, military attacks, and lots of unarmed combat – are exciting.

There’s an enjoyable cast list too, including John David Washington as The Protagonist, Robert Pattinson as his side-kick, Kenneth Branagh as the Russian villain and 6′ 3″ Elizabeth Debicki as the bad guy’s’s wife. It’s all very evocative of the Bond movies and, if you’ve ever wondered what a black 007 would look like, Washington provides one answer. 

The problem is the fiendishly complex plot which seems to be a threat to the whole of humankind as result of an issue with time called “inversion” which can only be solved with “temporal pincer movements” and a nine-part algorithm. At various points, someone does try to explain what’s going on, but the dialogue is often muffled and anyway it’s all nonsense.

Of course, Nolan has made a thing of playing with time in the films that he has written and, even with an historical event like “Dunkirk”, it has usually worked well. But I think it’s time for Nolan to give up on the time thing and try something different.

“Tenet” will do well: Nolan’s reputation and a thirst for new cinematic material will ensure that. But the movie will divide opinion – three reviewers in one newspaper have given it two, three and five stars. And I’m sure that I’ll see it again …

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Let’s hear it for friendship – and then let’s tackle inequality

August 27th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Relationships matter so much because other people can be our best sources of security, comfort and cooperation or our worst rivals. Just as bad relationships are highly stressful, friendship is relaxing and restorative. We have evolved an extraordinary sensitivity to relationships, because getting them right has always been crucial to our survival.”

This is an extract from an article in today’s “Guardian” newspaper which you can read here. The writer is Richard Wilkinson who is a researcher in social inequalities in health and emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham.

A decade ago, Professor Wilkinson co-authored a seminal book entitle “The Spirit Level” which I reviewed here.

Both the article and the book argue that reducing inequality is the best way to improve economic and social outcomes for all, not just those at the bottom of the class scale. The article makes clear that recent experience – including the coronavirus pandemic – has underlined the validity of this argument.

Time to build back better.

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A review of the novel “The Man In The High Castle” by Philip K Dick

August 26th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I decided to read this 1962 novel after the success of the Amazon television series of the same name broadcast in 40 parts between 2015-2019 even though I never viewed the series. It was immediately apparent to me that Dick’s books are generally better on the screen that on the page – think of “Total Recall”, “Minority Report” and especially “Blade Runner”.

The central proposition of the novel is intriguing and imaginative: the Second World War was won by the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy and, after the war, the USA is divided up between the Germans and the Japanese with a buffer region in between. The eponymous male lives in the neutral buffer zone and has written a novel, called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, which postulates a world in which the Allies won the war but not quite as we know our history.

The problem with Dick’s novel lies in his execution: it is very slow with only a couple of action sequences, it is full of extraneous detail about the making and sale of metalworks, it imbues mystical powers to an ancient text called called “I Ching” and one of the metal pieces, and the conclusion is anti-climatic and leaves important loose ends. At various points – and especially in a nine-page interlude towards the end – I felt that the author was under the influence of drugs.

Although Dick died young (he had a stroke at the age of 53), he was a prolific writer producing 44 published novels and approximately 121 short stories. The recurrent themes in his work included alternate realities and drug abuse. He won the Hugo Award for “The Man In The High Castle” and he was hailed as a genius in the science fiction world, but he was a flawed genius and this novel is not one that I could recommend. 

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A review of the recent film “Crazy Rich Asians”

August 25th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

While this may not be the first Western-produced film with an East Asian cast – think “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) – the sheer number of cast members with various Asian backgrounds and the huge commercial success of this 2018 movie (it was the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade) make it a step in cinematic history to be celebrated. 

Set in the Chinese community of Singapore (although filming was in Malaysia as well as Singapore), it is essentially a simple story of the upper-class, uber-wealthy family of Singaporean Nick Young (a first feature film role for Henry Golding) not accepting Chinese-American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) in spite of her being a college professor of economics. The principal obstacle is Nick’s mother (played by accomplished actress Michelle Yeoh) but Rachel has the support of an eccentric friend (played by rapper Awkwafina). 

The film is based on the novel of the same name which is the first part of a trilogy by Kevin Kwan. The enormous sucess of “Crazy Rich Asians” means that we can look forward to sequels “China Rich Girlfriend” and “Rich People Problems”. And why not? It is refreshing and fun to see an old-fashioned love story in a different ethnic context.

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A review of the 1998 film “Dark City”

August 21st, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Written, produced and directed by the Australian Alex Proyas, this is not a movie that will appeal to everyone. It is part mind-twisting science fiction like “The Matrix” and part homage to German Expressionism of the 1920s.

It looks wonderful – as dark as the title promises – but the plotting (a alien experiment with humankind) is rather confusing. Worth watching though if only for the cutting (an average of every two seconds), imagery (all neo-noir) and casting (Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connolly).

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How to make £10 billion in two days by doing nothing

August 20th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Does this sound impossible and crazy? Well, it is possible but it is crazy.

For most people around the world, the coronavirus global pandemic has been a terrible experience. Even if you stayed alive, even if you didn’t actually catch the virus, there’s a good chance that your business has gone bust or your job has disappeared or, at best, that your business or your job is more insecure than you’ve even known.

Meanwhile, however, stock markets – especially in the United States – are behaving as if nothing terrible is happening. In fact, they’re racing up and up.

So, if you happen to be Elon Musk, founder and part-owner of the Tesla car company, you’ve seen your wealth increase by more than $13.3 billion (around £10 billion) in just two days of trading as explained here. Musk had to do nothing to achieve this. Even he thinks the share price is too high. And he’s still only the fourth richest man in the world.

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Could China become a democracy?

August 18th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“China is bound to go through political transformation, toward democracy, political freedom, rule of law and constitutionalism. This is the inevitable trend of modern human political civilisation. China will enter this stage sooner or later.

Because the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has been in power since 1949, they have made many mistakes and even crimes. Between 1959 to 1961, nearly 40 million people starved to death. The anti-rightist movement of 1957 and the Cultural Revolution hurt almost all Chinese elites and intellectuals. Also the Tiananmen protests in 1989 when the CCP used its army to shoot the people. No matter what, this is unacceptable to Chinese people. It is the People’s Liberation Army, right? It is the people’s country.

Yet we see corruption within the party and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. In the future when China transitions to a democracy, all of these will be seen as the major mistakes or the sin of the CCP.”

This is a quote from a remarkable interview with Cai Xia, who was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) yesterday. Previously she was professor at China’s elite Central Party School, and in fact the interview with the “Guardian” was recorded in June. Only now that she has been expelled has Cai Xia agreed to publication of the interview.

Twenty years ago, after my first of four visit to China, I wrote an account of the trip which concluded:

“The 19th century was essentially the century of Britain; the 20th century was unquestionably the century of the United States; the 21st century might become the century of China. It depends on many factors. 

It depends on the quality of the political leadership and, in the short term, Jiang Zemin is due to be succeeded by the younger Hu Jintao. It depends on the extent to which the economic changes are followed by political changes, including the development of a civil society with a free media, pressure groups, independent trade unions, and ultimately political parties. It depends on how capably and rapidly the economy moves from the bricks and mortar of the industrial society to the clicks and bricks of the information society. It depends on how China uses its growing industrial and military strength at home, specifically in relation to Tibet and Taiwan, and in the global marketplace.”

At that time, I thought that, over time, economic liberalisation would lead to political liberalisation, but the Chinese political system remains deeply centralised and authoritarian and the current President Xi Jinping has abolished term limits while being repressive at home and aggressive abroad. Now someone has spoken out.

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My review of “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

August 14th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The award-winning black novelist Bernardine Evaristo has described the title of this non-fiction work – the first by Eddo-Lodge – as “gloriously provocative” and “marketing gold”. The truth is, of course, that the whole book is a conversation with white and non-white readers, by a young black woman born in north London and raised by a Nigerian mother, and it has achieved massive sales and caused a storm of comment. 

Timing is important. “Why” was published the year after the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump and spoke to liberals wondering why so many people were so fearing of ‘the other’. Then, in the summer of 2020, the book soared to the top of the best-seller list. The worldwide reaction to the appalling death of George Floyd in the United States, and a global pandemic which underlined the different life chances of black and non-black people and provided more time to think about these things, ensured that Eddo-Lodge’s book had a whole new readership, including me checking my white privilege.

Although the book has been the subject of a fair amount of research and contains plenty of information and facts, this is not an academic work and the content is not novel to those who have been paying attention to the debate about race, but the style is very accessible and, for many readers (especially white ones), it presents the argument in a compelling and forceful manner than cannot be ignored. The tone is anger, but people of colour have much to be angry about.

“Why” begins with a short history of the experience of black people in Britain. Of course, a seminal event was the arrival of the 492 Caribbeans on board the “Windrush” in June 1948 (the week I was born). Eddo-Lodge underlines that the reason why the United Kingdom received immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia was because Britain had colonised these parts of the world and promoted the slave trade before, after the devastation of the Second World War, encouraging them to travel to the ‘mother country’ to take up low-skilled work as the economy revived. 

The next section of the book explains that racism is not simply about prejudice by individuals but about the nature of the system. She prefers the term structural racism rather than institutional racism because “it is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions”. This is why, whether we look at education, employment, health, housing, income or wealth, the life chances of people of colour are so much worse than those of white people. 

There are two hard-hitting chapters examining the relationship between anti-racism on the one hand and feminism and class respectively on the other. Eddo-Lodge refers to “feminism’s race problem” and highlights “the overwhelming whiteness of feminism”. For black feminists and black socialists, a key issue is what is called “intersectionality” – a recognition that some people can and do suffer from two (or more) forms of discrimination and that we should not prioritise one to the exclusion of the other. Eddo-Lodge notes that “So much of politics is just middle-aged white men passing the ball to one another” and refers to “what writer bell hooks called ‘the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy'”

The final chapter – entitled “There’s No Justice, There’s Just Us” – is the shortest and the weakest. There is no manifesto of political change, but simply a call to white individuals to change the conversation. She declares “racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness” and urges “White people, you need to talk to other white people about race”. Of themselves, feminism and socialism will not eradicate racism, but feminism and socialism have massive roles to play in combatting the effects of racism and radicals from different corners of the fight for social justice need to beware of denigrating or disrespecting each other.

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Joe Biden chooses Kamala Harris as his running mate and that is the right choice

August 11th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his Vice-Presidential running mate will come as no surprise.

Three years ago, I tipped her for the top in blog postings here and here.

Three months ago, I said that she should be on Biden’s ticket in blog postings here and here.

Given Biden’s age, if he wins the presidency, there is no guarantee that he will complete his four-year term. If he does, he will probably not run for a second term. So America needs a Vice-President who is qualified to take over at any time. Harris is up to the job and the first female president – and a woman of colour – would be a wonderful thing.

Meanwhile, Biden and Harris have to win. And hopefully the Democrats will take the Senate as well as the House,

My next tip? Susan Rice for Secretary of State.

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How did Lebanon get into this state?

August 11th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The Prime Minister of Lebanon has offered his resignation stating: “I said that corruption is rooted in every part of the state, but I found out that corruption is greater than the state.” This situation has come about because of the history of the state and the meddling of so many external players.

It may be helpful for me to reproduce a book review that I wrote just after my visit to Lebanon in 2011:

“Beware Of Small States” by David Hirst

The title comes from an 1870 quote by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who was writing of 19th century Europe. In fact, the state that is the subject of this book is Lebanon which is indeed small: no biggest than Wales in the UK or Connecticut in the USA. The author was a long-time former Middle East correspondent for the “Guardian” newspaper and he has lived in Beirut for some 50 years. 

In 460 pages, David Hirst provides a history of Lebanon from 1860 to 2009 but, in doing so, effectively offers a history of the Middle East itself because Lebanon has so often been the subject of intervention by other states, whether the rule of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the First World War, France in the mandate period from 1918-1943, the presence since 1948 of Palestinian refugees and until 1982 the PLO, the support for different militias by various states during the horrendously bitter civil war of 1975-1990, the presence of UNIFIL peacekeeping troops since 1978, the invasions by Israel in 1982-1985 and again in 2006, the support of Iran for the militia Hezbollah since 1985, and the constant interference, sometime occupation, and repeated political assassinations by neighbouring Syria. 

Towards the end of this complicated, twisting and blood-soaked narrative, Hirst summarizes the current (2009) balance of forces in Lebanese politics. 

The 8 March bloc takes its name from a huge demonstration called by Hezbollah on that date in 2005. Membership of the bloc includes most of the Shia Muslim community dominated by Hezbollah led by Hasan Nasrallah plus Amal and the Maronite Christians led by Michel Aoun and (now 2011) the Druze led by Walid Jumblatt.  The group is supported by Syria and Iran. 

The 14 March bloc takes its name from probably an even bigger demonstration which was held on 14 March 2005, exactly one month after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Membership of the bloc includes the Sunni Muslims led by Rafiq’s son Saad and groups of the Maronite Christians led by Amine Gemayel and Samir Geagea. The group is supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

In short, Lebanon has never been master of its own fate. Hirst quotes the Iranian scholar R.K. Ramazani – “It is a truism that all things in the Middle East are interconnected” – and notes that “Nowhere did this truism manifest itself like it did in Lebanon”.

The reason for all this intervention and interconnectedness is partly Lebanon’s location in the cockpit of the Middle East and partly its complex religious and sectarian composition. From the beginning in 1943, this nation, which then had a mere one million citizens, reached an unwritten National Pact that specifically recognised and allocated political representation to no less than 17 groups. Today the population is some four million and a version of the National Pact remains in force with 18 groupings now recognised.

Hirst is incredibly well-informed and immensely informative but his history is not impartial. In particular he makes clear his opposition to Zionism and Israel, comparing the creation of the Jewish state with Lebanon itself and calling it “a vastly more arbitrary example of late-imperial arrogance, geopolitical caprice and perniciously misguided philanthropy”. But he is critical of the Arab states too, noting that “While Arabs may be abstractly passionate for Palestine the cause, they often display little such passion for Palestinians as persons”. He seems rather impressed by the Shiite Hezbollah though, describing it as “both the most influential political player in Lebanon and probably the most proficient guerilla organization in the world”.

I read “Beware Of Small States” while travelling in Syria and Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the successful February 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and it certainly aided my understanding of the region’s complex history and fractious present.

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