Worth Dying for: The power and politics of flags by Tim Marshall: Book Review


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The title is a statement, not a question.  So is the author suggesting that, yes, flags are worth dying for?

In this terrific book Tim Marshall explores, over about 300 pages, why it is that flags have become such strong semiotic devices across the 21st century globe.

As Amazon says in its splurge; In nine chapters (covering the USA, UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, international flags and flags of terror), Tim Marshall draws on more than twenty-five years of global reporting experience to reveal the histories, the power and the politics of the symbols that unite us – and divide us.

I absolutely loved this.

Marshall has a nice line in sarcasm although he keeps that to a minimum.  Largely the book is a fascinating historical insight into the power of flags, usually three colours or less.

Why green is so important in Islamic countries.  Why blue can represent sky, sea and many other things.  Why red is typically the colour of blood.  Or, of communism.

Why maybe a half of global flags have a religious significance, almost all of those crosses are, yup, crucifixes.

Why regions congregate around themes.  Ever wondered why all the Scandi flags are left biased crosses, just with different colour ways?  Find out here.

It’s not just political flags either, we read about the chequered flag, the Olympic flag, the red cross and more.

A great read and a great opportunity to increase your score on University Challenge.

 

The Two Popes: Movie Review


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Blimey, not only are the male actors on fire this year, but so too is Netflix.

This is another cracker in which Anthony Hopkins and, even more so, Jonathan Pryce show that two hours of religious dialogue between a couple of pensioners need not be a great big crushing bore.  In fact far from it.

The movie tackles the challenges that the ailing  and conservative Pope Benedict (Hopkins) is trying to leave behind as he tries to persuade the Argentinian papal prospect to become the incoming Pope.  But he is extremely reluctant (but very popular).  We know him now as Pope Francis  (Pryce).

The acting is extraordinary and the dramatic action is interwoven with multiple documentary sources so that the movie actually moves along at a fair old crack.

One doesn’t feel that one is being subjected to a Catholic propaganda machine, simply a brilliant study of two human beings in the face of monumental decision making, age and fraternal respect.  Against a troubled political background. (Pope Benedict did not cover himself in glory around the whole child abuse scandal.)

Many scenes are shot in the Vatican, especially in the Sistene Chapel, and it has a feel of a decidedly juicy behind the scenes look at something that is actually meant to be a huge secret.

There’s nothing particular in director Fernando Meirelles’ back catalogue to suggest a film of this nature was lying in wait (Both City of God and The Constant Gardener are good movies, but are nothing even remotely like this drama-documentary).

It’s funny, it’s engaging and most importantly it’s a masterclass in acting.

My God, the best actor category this awards season is going to be a hotbed of disappointment for at least three great actors.

Recommended.

 

The funeral of Jack Merritt.


I don’t know if Nick Cave and his wife Susie had a family connection with murdered graduate Jack Merritt, but I do know Cave demonstrated his boundless humanity by playing my all time favourite song, live, at the end of the young man’s funeral.
A song so achingly and nakedly emotional that I can’t imagine how he even got a performance out of himself in such tragic circumstances.
Indeed it is the song that will be played at the end of my funeral too.
I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Oh, not to touch a hair on your head
Leave you as you are
If he felt he had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms
And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you
Both to each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms
But I believe in Love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candles burning
Make her journey bright and pure
That she’ll keep returning
Always and evermore
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

The Irishman, movie review: Yet another Scorsese masterpiece.


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Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence and now The Irishman.  Most Directors would give a limb to have made just one of these magisterial films.  That list numbers 12.  And then there’s a bunch more of note sitting just below these.

The cinema industry is up in arms at Netflix pinching surely one of Scorsese’s last great outings from under their noses.

£200m was pumped into this movie that’s been sitting around, unmade for a decade.

It tempted Joe Pesci out of his retirement and put Pacino, Pesci and De Niro under Scorsese’s gaze for the first time.

And what a gaze.

In a 210 minute film that gives about 5 to women this is a man’s, man’s, man’s outing to outman all of its lofty predecessors, but there were many women in the audience of the big screen showing I attended and they loved it.

Anna Pacquin, De Niro’s daughter, is the only female character of note in the movie (the wives are fairly incidental).  Her single scripted word screams volumes from the screen and makes her appearance meritorious despite its paucity.

Pacino and Pesci are wonderful, but it’s a De Niro movie.  Scorsese’s real muse this bookend’s both of their careers starting with Taxi Driver and surely ending here.  It’s a massive performance full of grit, humour and pathos.  It’s simply breathtaking.  Especially when you consider the mid – late career crud that De Niro has been serving us.

Note this, Phoenix has competition for the Oscar that we all thought was surely a shoo-in only a month or two ago.

The humour is unexpected and one scene, in particular, where an absurd conversation about a fish takes place in a car, reminds us of the Chicken Royale scene in Pulp Fiction.  Clearly Scorsese has been noting the competition and, here, matches or possibly even exceeds them.

This demands to be seen on the big screen.  The monumental running time sits better with a cinema screening where you can tackle it, in its full immensity, without trips to the teapot (or wine cellar – it’s a two bottler).  What it allows Scorsese is the time to tell a complex tale languidly.  It gives him room to explore male relationships, bonding and latterly reflection on a life that has had much shame.

That Scorsese takes maybe 30 minutes to conclude a movie that in other hands would last five is telling.  But it’s exactly this that lies at the heart of an epic that sadly many will just say is boring.

It’s anything but.

Much has been made of the ‘de-aging’ technology, mostly critically, but it really helps to tell a four-decade story using the same actors throughout.  OK, it made De Niro a little rosy-cheeked at times, but it gets away with it.  And the ageing of Pesci, in particular, is amazing.  His final scenes of a man in very old age are moving and gripping.

I was blown away.

 

For Sama: Documentary review.


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Baby Sama. On the front line.

If you are looking for gratuitous expositions of the Syrian war this isn’t for you.

If however, you are looking for an in-depth and long-term study of how human beings driven by principle and humanity behave with integrity, in an absolute hell-hole that is East Aleppo, then it is.

It’s a heart-wrenching (but actually also heart-warming) exploration of what makes human beings, on the right side of the fence, great.

It’s set throughout the siege of Aleppo and follows the story of Waad Al-Khateab her daughter Sama and her husband (a doctor/surgeon/activist who runs an unofficial hospital) Hamza whom she meets, marries and has the aforementioned child, Sama, with during the documentary.

Waad films the proceedings, but the end product is a collaboration with co-director Edward Watts (who has several ISIS-based, and award winning, TV documentaries on his CV).  Both deserve immense credit.

It’s essentially a love letter to Waad and Hamsa’s daughter, as Waad narrates her story of the battle to her daughter whilst showcasing the incredible humanitarian work of her fearless husband in conditions that are beyond credible.

ISIS targeted the hospitals of Aleppo (a HUGE city of 4.6 million inhabitants), systematically blowing them up and sending them underground into what look like unsanitary conditions but somehow seem to function throughout the siege.  They are constantly bombed and on many occasions makeshift operating theatres become awash with blood.

The scenes of devastation that slowly unfold in the last few weeks of Aleppo’s intolerable siege are quite horrendous.  We are talking about a blitz here – and the city becomes a shell, very reminiscent of both London and Dresden in WWII.

And yet, life goes on.  Despite the torture, and the many deaths that we graphically witness, there is a strong sense of defiance and just getting on with it.  (Keep Calm and Carry On.)

One scene, in particular, when we witness the birth of a, perhaps, still born baby is so deeply distressing that you will never forget the images.  It’s mind-blowing.

This is a (very warped) joy of a film.

It’s not blessed with any frills AT ALL.  No music, no SFX, nothing.  Just a story that is devoid of schmaltz or emotional manipulation.  It just says what it sees.  It places not blame. It vilifies nobody.

But what emerges is a heroic culture that everyone should see.

Expect success in the next awards season.

 

 

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


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I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.

 

Hotel Mumbai: Movie Review.


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The Taj Hotel in Mumbai; setting for this atrocity.

This Sky Original movie simultaneously released in theatres and on Sky and we watched it on its opening night, free from either having read reviews or expectations.

To be honest, the real life incident that spawned the movie had actually faded in my memory so common, now, are such mass-murder terrorist events.

Some critics are calling it exploitative with an unacceptable level of Hollywood gloss, personally I found it perfectly acceptable and well told with enough sympathy in its direction to justify the horror that lies behind the script.

That didn’t really matter though, because whether or not one is familiar with this event, there are plenty others that it might have been.

It’s an ensemble cast production with stand-out, but un-showy, performances from Armie Hammer, Dev Patel and the head chef, played beautifully by Rohan Mirchandaney – all are trapped in the high class Taj Hotel in Mumbai as it is laid siege to by a group of Islamic terrorists acting under instruction from an off-screen telephone dictator known only as “The Bull”.

Whilst the terrorists enjoy a fair amount of screen time, it’s their prey that the movie, rightly, focusses on rather than glorify the terrorists’ actions.

It’s utterly chilling, pretty much from start to finish.  The head count of close-range and strafing machine-gun deaths is colossal, brutal and completely emotionless.  Indeed the film strangely fails to emotionally engage; rather it leaves you horror-struck at the ability of a less than elite bunch of assassins to wreak havoc, with little or no police/military intervention for many hours, making their killings become almost sporting-hunt-like.

The story is peppered with crescendos of killing and then quieter periods where the prey take stock of their situation and gradually formulate plans for their escape.

It’s cat and mouse throughout and gripping in its intensity.

I very much doubt this will trouble major awards juries, but as a piece of thought-provoking ‘entertainment’ it does its job without resorting to cliche, heavy emotional bribery or OTT special effects.

A good job, well done.