A review of the new superhero movie “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”

June 9th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Including “The Wolverine” and “Logan” but excluding spin offs (the Deadpool” films), this is the 10th “X-Men” movie and it looks like the last. Set in the early 1990s a decade after the events of “X-Men: Apocalypse”, the story revolves around the acquisition of extraordinary powers by Jean Grey (aka the eponymous Dark Phoenix) played by Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from television’s “Game Of Thrones”) and a battle beween the X-Men team and a group of aliens led by the white-haired Vuk (Jessica Chastain who is known for her red hair). 

On the plus side, there are some fun special effects and I liked the notion of the good X-Men led by Dr Xavier (James McEvoy) teaming up with the bad X-Men led by Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to combat Vuk and her ilk, but the means by which Jean Grey became the Dark Phoenix is risible and the aliens seem to have wandered in from an entirely different film. Also there is a sad underutilisation of acting talent, most notably in the case of Jennifer Lawrence as Raven.

In dramatic contrast to the Avengers franchise, the X-Men series leaves us with a whimper rather than a bang. Stan Lee, creator of the cast of characters in both collections and to whom this film is dedicated, is no longer alive to see this rather limp finale.

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A review of the new film “Late Night”

June 9th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

So here’s a rarity: a film directed by a woman (a first such responsibility for Nisha Ganatra),written by a woman (a first feature film script from Mindy Kaling), with women in the two leading roles (Emma Thompson as the presenter of a late show on American television and Kaling as the token female in the show’s previously all-male writing team).

So, does it work? It has a sharp script – with many funny lines but few laugh-out-loud moments – and some fine acting – especially from Thompson who should receive some nominations for a performance that is one of the best of her distinguished career – but the plotting is a bit too thin and formulaic. 

In film narratives, we so often have the notion of binary opposites and this work is a classic case: Katherine Newbury (Thompson) and Molly Patel (Kaling) represent English/Indian-American, middle-aged/younger, established/aspiring, selfish/caring, uptight/at ease. Naturally this presents many opportunities for comedic contrasts – it’s just not enough.

I was reminded of a film of two years earlier called “The Big Sick” which was written by and starred Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani. That was a better work but, either way, it’s good to see a bit more diversity in American cinema.

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Why are political opinion polls getting it wrong more often? (2)

June 5th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

I wrote a blog posting recently about the growing difficulty for opinion pollsters in forecasting accurately the result of elections. I particularly referenced the recent failure of all the pollsters in Australia to forecast the victory of the National-Liberal coalition.

I wrote: “I think that what we are seeing is more voter fluidity. Class used to be the major determinant of voting behaviour and class does not change quickly, but class seems no longer to be the dominant factor that it was. Voters seem to be more willing to change support from election to election and even, in the course of the campaign, from week to week and day to day.”

We now have more evidence of this – least as regards Australia – from a new poll asking voters when they decided how they would cast their vote.

Almost half of voters, 48%, had made their choice about which party they were voting for well before the election was called. But, more than a quarter of voters in the sample, 26%, had not yet made up their minds as the federal campaign entered its closing weeks. That number was still 11% by polling day, with those voters making their decision on the day they cast their ballots.

There may be a special factor at play in Australia which has mandatory voting. Maybe, in countries without mandatory voting, those who have still not made up their mind by polling day do not actually vote. But I suspect that in many countries a significant proportion of voters only make a decision once they go to the polling station.

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Where are we on research to enable us to combat dementia?

June 4th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

“Over recent decades we have begun to recognise dementia as a significant problem. Resultantly, we arefavouring a focus upon prevention rather than treatment.

The relative number of new cases is now in decline, with approximately 50 million people currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia. However, as our life spans are increasing, so too are the recorded number of dementia cases.

Our understanding of the disease has developed across time, allowing us to identify different types of dementia (such as Lewy Body Dementias or Vascular Dementia). Although, Alzheimer’s Dementia has taken the spotlight due to its higher frequency.

The latest consensus states that Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is identified by the lesions in the brain which can include neurofibrillary tangles, amyloid plaques and/or a loss of neurons.We used to only be ableto recognise these lesions post-mortem, meaning that until autopsy Alzheimer’s Dementia was called “possible Alzheimer’s Dementia”. However, we are now able to recognise these changes before death, either by imaging methods or by the levels of biomarkers (different substances related to the brain that can be measured in blood, urine and saliva).

Alzheimer’s Dementia is the clinical manifestation of the disease. With symptoms including a significantdecline in memory, concentration and orientation, etc.

For many years, we have tried to come across a treatment that would stop or reverse the evolution of the condition. Nevertheless, nearly all clinical trials for Alzheimer’s Dementia have failed and the few medications available tend to succeed in only treating some of the symptoms, rather than the disease itself. Due to the unique nature of the brain and its components, it is likely that our previous approach of targeting the symptoms to obtain a cure may not work with Alzheimer’s as it does with many other diseases.Taking a step back and looking at the disease before it materialises could be what we need, to identify those at risk of dementia and to prevent the negative consequences of this illness.

With the data collected by the CHARIOT PRO Sub Study we are hoping, along with other researchersworldwide, to improve the identification, characterisation and early treatment of dementia.”

A note by Dr Martin E. Cohn.

I am a member of the CHARIOT PRO Sub Study.

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Which part of “second referendum” does Jeremy Corbyn not understand?

June 2nd, 2019 by Roger Darlington

“In the latest Opinium/Observer poll published on Sunday, the Brexit party has surged into first place, overtaking Labour. It is the first time the party has achieved top position in a national poll. The Brexit party is on 26% with Labour on 22%, the Tories on 17%, and the Lib Dems on 16%. When Labour supporters were asked what they wanted their party’s policy on Europe to be, 65% said they either wanted a second referendum or to Remain, with only 17% wanting either a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit.”

A extract from an article in today’s “Observer” newspaper.

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What’s so special about the orbit of the planet Mercury?

May 31st, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Mercury is tidally locked with the Sun in a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, and rotates in a way that is unique in the Solar System.

As seen relative to the fixed stars, it rotates on its axis exactly three times for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun. As seen from the Sun, in a frame of reference that rotates with the orbital motion, it appears to rotate only once every two Mercurian years. An observer on Mercury would therefore see only one day every two Mercurian years.

Mercury’s axis has the smallest tilt of any of the Solar System’s planets (about ​130 degree). Its orbital eccentricity is the largest of all known planets in the Solar System;[ at perihelion, Mercury’s distance from the Sun is only about two-thirds (or 66%) of its distance at aphelion.

This is an extract from the Wikipedia page on Mercury. I was encouraged to look this up following my viewing of Part 1 of the fascinating new television series “The Planets” presented by Professor Brian Cox.

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A review of “The Last Temptation Of Boris”

May 31st, 2019 by Roger Darlington

The Park Theatre in London’s Finsbury Park is a small venue but puts on some interesting plays. This week, I went to see the deeply satirical play “The Last Temptation Of Boris” written by Jonathan Maitland and starring Will Barton in the eponymous role with most of the other actors playing more than one character.

The first half is a dinner party in 2016 when Michael Gove pressed Boris to decide whether he was going to support Leave or Remain in the imminent referendum on British membership of the European Union. The second half jumps forward to 2029 when (spoiler alert!) we have had a decade of Brexit but Boris has still not managed to become leader of the Conservative Party.

The first segment actually happened, whereas the second is the stuff of dreams or nightmares, depending on your point of view. The ghosts of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair visit each half of the play.

Maitland provides amusement in every line of dialogue although some jokes are much funnier than others. Even though the play had been running a couple of weeks by the time I saw it, it could not be more topical.

The Conservative leadership election has just started with Boris as the favourite. The court case about the £350M lie was announced the day I attended the play and that evening’s performance even managed to pick up a reference to the event which provided one of the loudest laughs of the night.

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A review of the new film “Rocketman”

May 30th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Inevitably, this bio-pic of British singer/songwriter Elton John will be compared with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the film about British rock group Queen, since both were directed by Dexter Fletcher and they were released with less than a year between them. But Dexter only worked on “Bohemian Rhapsody” for three weeks, following the firing of Bryan Singe,r whereas this time he was in control for the whole project. Also, following an inventive script from Lee Hall (who wrote “Billy Liar”), Fletcher here gives us an altogether less conventional treatment with frequent bouts of fantasy which works surprisngly well.

In an interview with “Empire” magazine, Fletcher stated: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was a film with music in it. This is a musical.” Or, as Elton John wrote in a piece for the “Observer” newspaper: “the point of it … was to make something that was like my life: chaotic, funny, mad, horrible, brilliant and dark. It’s obviously not all true, but it’s the truth.”

The lead role is taken by Taron Egerton, who has come a long way since his roles in the “Kingsmen” movies, and this talented actor, who represents the singer from age 17 to 42, not only looks the part with the famous gap-teeth and outlandish costumes and glasses, he actually sings all the songs (another difference in production from “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Other important and contrasting roles are EJ’s kindly and understanding lyricist Bernie Taupin and his first male lover and manipulative manager Alex Reid, portrayed respectively by Jamies Bell and James Madden.

Since Elton John himself was a producer and his husband David Farnish was an excutive producer, there is nothing here that the singer does not want us to see, but – again as distinct from “Bohemian Rhapsody” – we are shown John’s abuse of drink and drugs, his homosexually, and his ego and anger.

Of course, the songs are wonderful and the performances suitably flamboyant. But the film does not feature my favourite EJ work: “Song For Guy”.

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How can we summarise the history of the United States? Let me try …

May 29th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

My review of “A Little History Of The United States” by James West Davidson

This is not just a short account (300 pages) but it is conveniently broken up into 40 brief chapters and the writing style is very accessible, even conversational, with an emphasis on personalities and stories rather than dates and statistics. The overall tone could be said to be liberal or progressive.

Following the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by the Norseman Leif Erikson around 1000 AD (actually what is today Newfoundland, Canada) and the ‘rediscovery’ by the Italian Christopher Columbus in 1492 (actually somewhere in what is now called the Bahamas), Europeans paid little attention to North America for 140 years (1542-1682) which Davidson calls “a huge silence in the history books”.

In a sense, therefore, the story of the United States itself does not really get going until the French explorer Jean-Baptiste de La Salle’s trip down the Mississippi River in 1682. Very early in the narrative of the nation, two tensions emerged: that between a central authority and localised autonomy and that between the notion of liberty and the practice of slavery.

Following the American War of Independence from 1775-1783 (“a quarrel that turned into an uprising [that] spiraled into a full-fledged rebellion”) and the rapid expansion of the nation through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, President Andrew Jackson’s forced acquisition of substantial Indian lands, and the spoils of the U.S.-Mexican war of 1846-1848, these twin tensions led to the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

Davidson reminds us that the civil war death toll of some three-quarters of a million was more than died in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the U.S.-Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, and World Wars I and II combined. 

Following a period known as Reconstruction, the country was beset economically by one major panic or depression after another: 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873-1879, 1882-1885, 1893-1897, and most infamously the Great Depression of 1929-late 1930s. Then – and now – American politics has divided into two views of how economic wealth is allocated in society: what Davidson characterises as “luck or pluck”.

So-called progressives took the view that the federal goverment had to intervene to support the most deprived in society. This led to the ‘square deal’ of President Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, and the Great Society of President Lyndon Johnson. But more recent experience has been much more conservative and free market.

This little history is brought up todate with brief accounts of the emergence of the U.S.A. as a superpower, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the Soviet empire. 

Davidson concludes his story by reminding readers that: “Two big ideas echo through American history, circling and ever returning: freedom and equality”.

The lines between these two concepts have been redrawn again and again: the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 (the valuation of slaves), the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (the admission of Maine as a slave state and Missouri as a free state), the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (effectively a repeal of the Missouri Compromise), and the Compromise of 1850 (the status of territories acquired in the Mexican-American War). He insists that “the lines never held”

And today the lines still have to be redrawn. If freedom means the freedom to be unequal, how unequal? And what is the role of government in ameliorating such inequalities? These are questions for every nation but perhaps most especially for the richest nation in the history of humankind. 

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The European Union is a large democratic entity – but not the largest. That would be India.

May 27th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

India – with a population of 1.3 billion and an electorate of around 900 million – is the world’s largest democracy and, for all its faults and flaws, this democratic system stands in marked contrast to the democratic failures of Pakistan and Bangladesh which were part of India until 1947.

Elections in a country of the size and complexity of India are huge and difficult affairs. The Indian Constitution requires that voters do not have to travel more than 2 km (1.2 miles) from their homes to vote. At the recent election, some 900 million citizens were eligible to vote and around 600 million did so.

There is no way that such a poll can be conducted on a single day and in fact the last election to the Lok Sabha took place over a period of almost six weeks, starting on 11 April 2019 and finishing on 19 May 2019 with all votes counted on a single day: 23 May 2019. The election was conducted in seven separate phases and almost 4 million staff were deployed to run them.

How is power allocated in the Indian political system? How are elections to the parliament in India structured? What was the result in the recent general election? You’ll find all the answers in my updated short guide to the Indian political system.

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