Time to bring Facebook to book

February 18th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

“Facebook is an out-of-control train wreck that is destroying democracy and must be brought under control. The final report of parliament’s inquiry into fake news and disinformation does not use this language, precisely, but it is, nonetheless, the report’s central message. And the language it does use is no less damning.

Facebook behaves like a “digital gangster”. It considers itself to be “ahead of and beyond the law”. It “misled” parliament. It gave statements that were “not true”. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has treated British lawmakers with “contempt”. It has pursued a “deliberate” strategy to deceive parliament.

In terms of how lawmakers across the globe need to think about Silicon Valley, the report is a landmark. “

These are the opening paragraphs of a piece by “Guardian” reporter Carole Cadwalladr on today’s Select Committee report on fake news.

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A review of the recent film “Funny Cow”

February 17th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

I saw this film this weekend in a church hall in London’s Winchmore Hill where it was shown by a community cinema project called “Talkies” and followed by a question & answer session with Lindsey Coulson, a local actress who plays the drunkard mother of the titular character, a comedienne attempting to succeed in the working mens’ clubs of the north of England in the 1980s.

The work had a very limited theatrical release and one can understand why. Whatever the title, there is little humour here, but instead almost unremitting misery. Furthermore the chronology is fractured and confusing, there is an odd mix of presentational styles, and it is very unclear what writer Tony Pitts and director Adrian Shergold are trying to tell us.

So, why see it? Mainly for a powerful performance by Maxime Peake who, as the eponymous ‘cow’ (the character is never given a name), is rarely off the screen and is compellingly watchable.

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And how did you spend Valentine’s Day?

February 15th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

I visited Manchester for the day with my new partner. We went to the People’s History Museum to join a special tour of the main galleries and hear about love stories through history – an event billed as “a perfect date for romantic radicals”.

Mary Wollstonecraft strongly disagreed with the treatment of women within the institution of marriage, even though she would go on to marry her lover William Godwin.  Friedrich Engels discovered love when he was researching the lives of the working class in the slums of Manchester, meeting Irish immigrant Mary Burns with whom he had a relationship for over 20 years.  Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who as a couple played a huge role in the formation of both the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, did not marry until after the death of Beatrice’s father, and after much persuasion.

If you’ve never come across the People’s History Museum – also known as the national museum of democracy – you’ll find more information here.

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How a slave revolt in Haiti doubled the size of the United States

February 14th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

I used to love “The West Wing” not just for its entertainment value but because I learned things. To some extent, the same is true with the current political series “Madam Secretary”.

It was thanks to a episode recently screened in the UK (we are behind the US) that I learned how the United States was doubled in size thanks to the Louisiana Purchase which in turn was prompted by a slave rebellion in Haiti.

You can read the explanation here.

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A review of the new sci-fi movie “Alita: Battle Angel”

February 13th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

A movie co-written and co-produced by the legendary James Cameron (“Avatar”) and co-written and directed by the innovative Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) was always going to mean that something special was on offer and attract the attention of this sc-fi fan and I made sure to see it on an IMAX screen in 3D. 

Set in Iron City on Earth in 2563, the story encompasses four of the novels in the cyberpunk manga series by Japanese writer Yukito Kishiro. The titular large-eyed Alita (newcomer Rosa Salazar) is a very badly damaged teenage cyborg with a human brain who is discovered, restored and named (after his deceased daughter) by Dr. Dyson Ido (the now ubiquitous Christopher Waltz).

In the course of the film, her cyber body is massively upgraded and she discovers latent fighting skills in a form of martial arts called “panzer kunst”. We are here in the familiar territory of the different language versions of “Ghost In The Shell” (1995 & 2017).

Visually the movie is simply stunning with terrific use of motion capture and special effects. There are some exciting fight sequences with a variety of technology-enhanced villains and spectacular races in a game called “Motorball” which is very reminiscent of the films “Rollerball” (1975 & 2002).

The two weaknesses of the work are related: the narrative is thin and rather confused and the ending is sudden and unsatisfactory. These inadequacies might well be addressed by what seems like an inevitable sequel or two when presumably we will see more of Zalem, that city in the sky which has echoes of the earlier (2013) “Elysium”.

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On the 40th anniversary of the revolution in Iran, how much do you know about the country and its people?

February 11th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

According to the Wikipedia page on the Iran revolution, it took place between 7 January 1978 – 11 February 1979, so today marks the 40th anniversary of this enormously important event, but few people know much about this large and important nation.

Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilisations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 4000 BC. Michael Axworthy – a lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter – has done a marvellous job in providing an erudite but readable history “from Zoroaster to the present day” in just 300 pages and you can read my review of his book here.

Coin Coughlin is the executive foreign editor of the “Daily Telegraph” and has previously written a biography of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In a work of 360 pages, he examines the last century of the history of neighbouring Iran through the prism of the life of the Ayatollah Khomeini, arch enemy to Hussein. This a readable and informative examination of one of the greatest revolutions in world history whose consequences still shape global politics and threaten world peace. You can read my review here.

I actually visited Iran 10 years ago , shortly after the last major protest movement against the regime, and you can read the account of my trip here.

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A review of the new movie” Green Book”

February 10th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

We are back in the territory of “Driving Miss Daisy” but with a role reversal. Here the driver is white – a traditional, working-class, family-orientated Italian-American – while the passenger is black – an educated and cultured African-American pianist who is a lonely figure unable to identify with either black or white communities.

Another major difference is that this film is based on a true story of how in 1962 Tony Lip drove Dr Don Shirley around the American deep south for a series of concerts. The Green Book of the title was a guide to which establishments were prepared to accommodate blacks.

This is not the kind of work we have come to expect of director and co-writer Peter Farrelly who, with his brother, gave us such less thoughtful movies as “Dumb And Dumber”.

The examination of race relations is somewhat simplistic and sometimes the characters come across as rather stereotypical, while the Shirley family has challenged the friendship apparently forged on this road trip (the film is based on a book by a relative of Tony Lip).

Having said all this, the film manages to be worthy while entertaining and presents an uplifting message of how different individuals can change how each sees the world in a manner which brings people together – and, boy, do we need such a message right now.

Also the two central performances are outstanding: a paunchy Viggo Mortensen (“The Lord Of The Rings”) as Tony and Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) as Dr Shirley. These are characters for whom we genuinely feel as each traverses the arc of transformation.

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A review of the new film “Mary, Queen Of Scots”

February 9th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

In 1972, I went to the cinema to a see a film with exactly the same title, telling the same late 16th century story, with Vanessa Redgrave as the Scottish Catholic queen and Glenda Jackson as her English Protestant cousin and rival Elizabeth. 

Almost half a century later, I returned to the theatre to see a fresh version of this fascinating period of British history with the Irish Saoirse Ronan as the Scottish royal and the Australian Margot Robbie as the English monarch.

Ronan has come a long way in a short time since her childhood appearance in “Atonement” and she is superb in this leading role as a woman battling a whole succession of men who wish to control her as well as a “sister”/cousin who ultimately condemns her to death. Robbie does well in a more challenging role with less screen time in which she dons a prosthetic nose and suffers a pox-marked face. 

A difference between this version of the story and other cinematic endeavours is that for the first time we have a female director, Josie Rourke, best-known as the Artistic Director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, here making her film debut.

The film has been criticised both for the fact that the two queens meet (they never did) and for the theatrical style of this encounter (the billowing sheets betray Rourke’s background in the theatre). I think that it is a legitimate artistic device to present the two queens as coming together (where would “Heat” have been without the two leads meeting over coffee?), but the scene is too anti-climatic for such a dramatic face-off. 

This is a season of British royal costume dramas since “The Favourite” was released in the UK only a few weeks before “Mary, Queen Of Scots” and both look wonderful with splendid clothing and striking locations.

But, arguably “Mary” has a particular message at a time when the nation is tearing itself in pieces over Brexit. It tells us how England and Scotland were brought together under Mary’s son James and invites us (if silently) to consider whether we really want to risk that union.

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Why has it taken us so long to address the issue of harmful content on the Internet?

February 8th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

It’s good to hear that the news that Instagram is now going to remove self-harm images and encouragement to suicide from its service. But why has it taken so long and why is the industry not adopting a more comprehensive approach to harmful content of different kinds?

Almost two decades ago, I became the first independent Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation. This did – and still does – a great job in tackling illegal content on the Net. But I could never persuade the industry to address the issue of harmful content which has since – predictably – become such a huge issue.

Once I ceased to be IWF Chair 13 years ago, I made a series of speeches and a submission to government calling for action on harmful content. Since then, the Net has become a different creature with the advent of social media, so my practical suggestions would not cut it now, but the principles I advocated are as relevant as ever and the need for action is more urgent than ever.

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A review of the new film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

February 8th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

On the face of it, this is not a story that would have seemed to have had sufficient appeal to succeed as a movie, since it is centred on two profoundly lonely souls, one of whom is a forger, the other of whom is a serial trickster, both of whom drink far too much and care for others far too little.

Set in New York in 1991, it is the true-life account of how author Lee Israel felt compelled to pay her bills by creating some 400 forgeries of letters from famous writers who, when her nefarious activities become too well-known to buyers of such artefacts, makes an unlikley alliance with the dissolute Jack Hock.

That the film works so well is in large measure due to director Marielle Heller (would a male direcctor have handled the material so sensitively?) and outstanding performances from Melissa McCarthy as Israel and Richard E Grant as Hock (in real lfe an American but portrayed here as quintessentially British), both of whom have been nominated for Academy Awards.

McCarthy made her name in comedic roles in work such as “Bridemaids” but we knew from “St Vincent” that she could do serious roles and here she manages to make a woman who is both louche and lush as someone to be pitied more than despised. For Grant, this is something of a return to his eponymous role in “Withnail And I”, but in this story we cannot help caring for his future while fearing that it is limited.

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