A review of the horror movie “Bird Box”

March 17th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

In 2018, two films were issued with remarkably similar storylines. In both “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box”, the world was taken over by an alien force that very quickly and very largely wiped out the human population. Both works involved a feisty woman leading a local fight-back and endeavouring to locate other survivors and both women had babies in the mayhem.

In “A Quiet Place”, the creatures had acute hearing but poor sight, so humans could move around but not make a sound and resorted to communicating by sign language. In “Bird Box”, the invaders could be sensed by birds – hence the title – but, if a person looked at them, they immediately became suicidal or psychotic, so people could only move around outside if they wore blindfolds. Pretty similar, huh?

You might have heard of “A Quiet Place – which stars Emily Blunt – because it did well at the box office and spawned a sequel. You may well not have heard of “Bird Box” – which stars Sandra Bullock – because the critics were not keen although it did well on Netflix.

“Bird Box” has its gory moments with elements of a zombie movie and even a touch of ghost story, but it is well-constructed and worth seeing for Bullock’s performance plus those of a range of support actors headed by the redoubtable John Malkovich.

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When did Ukraine come under Russian control and who was responsible for this?

March 16th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The short answers are January 1654 and Bordan Khmelnytsky.

Khmelnytsky was the leader of the Hetmanate Cossacks who led a successful uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of which Ukraine was then a part. At the small town of Pereiaslav, he signed an agreement that, in return for allegiance to the Russian Tsar, the Cossack Hetmanate would receive the military protection of Russia.

For the next three and a quarter centuries, Kiev (now Kviv) would be ruled from Moscow.

This is a fundamental part of the historical background to why Putin wants to take over Ukraine and why the Poles are so welcoming to Ukrainian refugees. Of course, there are many contemporary factors but history casts a long shadow.

For more detail, follow the links.

For my part, I first learned this information through my reading of “Borderland” by Anna Reid.

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Why did Putin order the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

March 15th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

“This war was not inevitable, but we have been moving toward it for years: the west, and Russia, and Ukraine. The war itself is not new – it began, as Ukrainians have frequently reminded us in the past two weeks, with the Russian incursion in 2014. But the roots go back even further. We are still experiencing the death throes of the Soviet empire. We are reaping, too, in the west, the fruits of our failed policies in the region after the Soviet collapse.”

This is a quote from an article in today’s “Guardian” newspaper by American academic Keith Gessen. It is one of the most informative pieces on the Ukraine war that I’ve read so far. It is quite long but worth your time if you want to understand what is going on.

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A review of the Italian novel “The Lost Daughter” by Elena Ferrante

March 14th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Although I had previously read four novels by Ferrante (the Neapolitan Quartet), I did not read this earlier and shorter work until after I saw the film version.

Told in the first person, this is the story of Leda, an Italian teacher of English literature who is a middle-aged divorcée and mother of two grown daughters. When she takes a seaside holiday in southern Italy, she meets young mother Nina and her daughter Elena and her interactions with them trigger painful recollections of her own experience of womanhood and motherhood.

The novel explores an immensely sensitive subject: the rarely acknowledged truth that many women find parenthood hard, sometimes so crushingly hard that they have to escape from it in order to find their own identity and fulfil their own aspirations. The consequences of such maternal ambivalence casts a shadow that lasts a lifetime.

But, in Leda’s words: “Sometimes you have to escape in order not to die”.

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A review of the new blockbuster movie “The Batman”

March 12th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

This is the ninth Batman movie since 1989 and I’ve enjoyed them all, but such a regular rebooting needs something new each time and, in that respect, “The Batman” delivers with a very respectable addition to the canon, although the three Christopher Nolan films (2005, 2008, 2012) were the best in my book.

The director (and co-writer) this time is Matt Reeves who made the latest couple of “Planet Of The Apes” movies. He has given us a very, very dark work – both visually and narratively – with lots of close-up and blurry shots. Gotham City has never been lashed with so much heavy rain (I suppose some of the location shooting was in Liverpool and Glasgow – but really). And it is very, very long at a bottom-aching, bladder-straining three hours (even if you don’t sit through the credits which conclude with a short message from the villain).

These nine Batman movies have featured six actors in the leading role and the latest to don the cape is Robert Pattison who has come a long way since the “Twilight” saga. I think he is better as the dark knight than he is as Bruce Wayne and, as the former, he has a great costume and makes sure that he has ‘the voice’. More than other manifestations of this super-hero, he is presented as anguished about whether he is really making a difference. Thankfully his aid in arms is not Robin but Selina Kyle aka Catwoman (a confident Zoë Kravitz). 

On this occasion, the psychopathic foe is The Riddler’. I confess that I’ve never liked riddles but they don’t seem to present too much difficulty to Batman (I wonder if he is as good at Wordle). It’s a long time before we see Paul Dano’s face and then he just looks like a sad nerd. Nothing like as scary as The Joker (glimpsed at the end) or as weird as The Penguin (who makes a significant appearance).

Overall the film comes over as more of a kind of film noir detective story than as a classic super-hero actioner but, when the action does come, it’s thrilling and, since I saw it in IMAX on Britain’s biggest screen, enveloping. 

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As the Covid-19 pandemic runs on, how bad is it looking?

March 11th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

An article in today’s “Guardian” newspaper reports a new estimate of the Covid-19 global death toll:

“The Covid-19 pandemic may have claimed 18.2 million lives around the world, more than three times the official death toll, a new study suggests.

The higher figure is a better estimate of the true global casualty figure to the end of 2021, according to an analysis by a consortium of health researchers published in the Lancet.

They have based their calculation on the number of “excess deaths” which they believe were caused directly or indirectly by the pandemic. These are calculated by looking at the difference between the number of deaths recorded from all causes and the number of expected based on previous patterns.”

We don’t know the death toll from the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-1920. It is usually estimated as between 20 – 50 million, but the lowest estimate is 17 million and the highest is 100 million. So we have now reached the situation with Covid-19 when the latest estimate for the global death toll is similar to the lowest estimate for the toll of Spanish flu.,

The situation for Britain is interesting. The death toll from Spanish flu was 228,000. So far, the official death toll for Covid-19 is about 173,000.  So again the death toll is similar to that of Spanish flu.

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A review of the 2020 film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” about the massacre at Srebrenica

March 10th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia led to a number of brutal conflicts of which the worst was the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992-1996 – a country which I visited in 2007. Hollywood has shown no interest in this war but there was a British-made film in 1997 called “Welcome To Sarajevo” about the four-year siege of Bosnia’s capital city.

“Quo Vadis, Aida?” deals with one particular incident – an especially brutal one – in that conflict when, in July 1995 at the small town of Srebrenica, over 8,000 men and boys were massacred by Serb forces in spite of the fact that the location was supposed to a UN ‘safe haven’ under the control of Dutch blue-helmeted troops. 

This film is very much a locally-produced work which required the support of no less than 12 organisations to bring to the screen. It was shot locally with local actors and extras speaking local languages and at times the viewer can feel that it is almost a documentary.

The writer, producer and directer is Jasmila Žbanić, a Bosniak who was born into a Muslim family. The titular role is that of a local teacher turned interpreter Aida Selmanagić, played powerfully by Jasna Đuričić who is actually Serbian, a woman does everything she can to save her husband and two sons. 

We feel the fear but we never actually see the massacre in this restrained but compelling account that is deeply moving.

Catch it on Netflix when you’re not actually watching news of the invasion of Ukraine to be reminded of a previous war in contemporary Europe.

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A review of the history book “On The Cusp” by David Kynaston

March 9th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Distinguished British historian David Kynaston has embarked on a formidable project to produce a post-war history of the country under the banner “Tales Of A New Jerusalem” which will eventually cover the period 1945-1979. The distinctive style of this historical record is his use of contemporary records such as diaries, letters, and news reports.

By the time of the global pandemic, he had written three of a planned six segments (each of two volumes) entitled “Austerity Britain” (1945-1951), Family Britain” (1951-1957) and Modernity Britain” (1957-1962). 

“On The Cusp” is something of a break-out work written largely during the first lockdown of spring and summer 2020 and covering only those months between June and October 1962. He calls this period the cusp of the ‘real’ swinging 1960s as highlighted by the release of the same day on the first Beatles single (“Love Me Do”) and the first James Bond film (“Dr No”).

At the time, I was a 14 year old schoolboy in Manchester who had just started writing a daily diary – a habit which would run for (so far) 60 years.

Kynaston’s work is highly readable, almost compulsive, but the picture he paints of 1962 comes across as somewhat grim, although it did not seen so at the time. 

People’s teeth were in a terrible state and there was the scandal of thalidomide babies. Race relations were toxic and homosexuality was illegal. There were only two channels of television both black & white. Farming was ceasing to be a major source of employment, while the traditional industries of coal, steel, and textiles were in decline. Beeching was savaging the railways. Harold Macmillan was Conservative Prime Minister and promoting Britain’s application to the so-called Common Market, while Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell was opposing this because it would be “the end of a thousand years of history”. 

Thank goodness for the Beatles and Bond …

Full disclosure: my diary is quoted.

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A review of the 2010 film “East Pray Love”

March 5th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Successful American writer Elizabeth Gilbert left an unhappy marriage and an unsatisfying relationship before deciding to spend a year finding herself through travel in Italy (eating), India (praying) and Indonesia (loving). In 2006, she published a chronicle of this year of “spiritual and personal exploration” which has gone on to sell over 12 million copies in over 30 languages. In 2010, this film version came out with Julia Roberts as Gilbert. I didn’t get round to watching it until I was desperate for an uplifting film to divert me from the terrible news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The movie is too long (two and a quarter hours), too light (PG certificate), and – for me at least – too imbued with spirituality, but it is watchable enough. As well as Roberts who gives a sensitive performance, it is full of beautiful people such as Billy Crudup, James Franco and Javier Bardem – who play her lovers – with some fine support from the likes of Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins. And, of course, there is some glorious location shooting in Italy’s Rome, India’s Pataudi, and Indonesia’s Bali. And, finally, there is a happy ending as Elizabeth falls in love.

I can understand Elizabeth’s anguish over her divorce, having undergone two myself, but the whole idea of taking a year to find oneself – financed through a $200,000 advance on a book deal – strikes me as massively self-indulgent. And, after all that food, meditation and sex, did she find herself? 

Well, after her first marriage of 8 years, she married the guy she met in Bali only to split after 9 years. After that she had a commitment ceremony with a female friend dying of cancer followed by a relationship with a mutual male friend that was short lived. I suspect that this is a woman with commitment issues which no amount of spiritual meandering will resolve. She herself has written an article, entitled “Confessions Of A Seduction Addict”, in which she confesses that she has “careened from one intimate entanglement to the next – dozens of them – without so much as a day off between romances”.

So see the film as a very particular effort to find romance without any general lessons on how to find it.

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Have you heard of the “bald-hairy” joke in Russian political discourse?

March 3rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

“Bald-hairy” is a common joke in Russian political discourse, referring to the empirical rule of the state leaders’ succession defined as a change of a bald or balding leader to a hairy one and vice versa. This consistent pattern can be traced back to as early as 1825, when Nicholas I succeeded his late brother Alexander as the Russian Emperor. Nicholas I’s son Alexander II formed the first “bald–hairy” pair of the sequence with his father.

In modern Russia the pattern is a frequent subject for jokes and cartoons. It is often used in political journalism:

“Bald, hairy, bald, hairy, bald, hairy—that’s how we elect our leaders,” my St Petersburg friend quips when I ask if she voted in the presidential elections. “Think about it: Lenin was bald, Stalin was hairy; Krushchev was bald, Brezhnev was hairy; Gorbachev was bald, Yeltsin was hairy—and Putin is practically bald. Medvedev had to win.”

You can see a full sequence of “bald-hairy” Russian leaders here.

Now, Vladimir Putin has been in power – as president, then prime minister and then president again – for almost 22 years, longer than any leader except Stalin. It is to be profoundly hoped that his disastrous war against Ukraine will encourage a coup against him. For the tradition to be honoured, his successor should have a good head of hair.

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