Wednesday, 10 August 2016

'Bobby Sands: 66 Days' is revisionist propaganda

A documentary detailing the hunger strike by IRA member Bobby Sands in 1981 which led to his death. The film centres around the writings of Sands himself while he was on the hunger strike at the Maze Prison. Around that, we have a number of historians, former IRA members and politicians giving their views, interspersed with archive footage of scenes from the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The dominant interviewee in the film is the Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole. He espouses, at great length, the idea that Bobby Sands was an artist, who in dying, was making the ultimate sacrifice for his art. O'Toole completely separates Sands actions from the political context of the time.
Sands was in prison for a second time for IRA activities. He had joined the IRA in 1971, having grown up in a time of violence, discrimination and oppression of catholic people in the 6 counties. This is the context behind Bobby Sands' actions but it is barely mentioned.

The violence perpetrated by loyalists and the British army, against nationalists is never mentioned in this film. Only violence by the IRA is mentioned. The film even mentions the upsurge in violence in 1972, without mentioning the biggest reason for it, Bloody Sunday which occurred in January of that year.

And therein lies the biggest problem with this film. It is determined to present a very one-sided picture of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where the IRA were the sole aggressors and everyone else, including the British were victims. At the same time, Bobby Sands is separated from the historical context by the constant positing of him as some kind of artist.
The film disrespects Bobby Sands and all the hunger strikers by removing their actions from the political context of the time.

And while some of the animated sequences are well done, the editing is poor. Scenes are juxtaposed together which jar against each other. Thus the film doesn't flow very well and can be hard to watch, while certain scenes are unnecessarily repeated.

Ultimately, the film is revisionist propaganda, serving a particular political line. Decontextualising the hunger strikes from other events in Northern Ireland does not do the story of Bobby Sands justice.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Birdman: Potential, but ultimately disappointing

I found this film showy and way too self indulgent. The whole film is devoted to parodying itself, and acting, and theatre, and its cast and itself again. Yet it lacks the requisite humour. We get it, Keaton used to play Batman and is now washed up, and Norton is a method actor. Knowing this before hand, as would most cinema-goers does not make this parody particularly worthwhile.

The film takes a typical pot shot at theatre critics, and then attacks theatre for being bourgeois. Yet the film is filmed like a theatre play and it never escapes its stagey setting. Aside from Keaton and Norton, overacting at the centre, a variety of good actors are left on the sidelines in throwaway roles. Andrea Riseborough is particularly neglected and then cast aside for the majority of the film.

The middle of the film drags along as well before picking up at the end. But the finale is risible. The scriptwriters don't seem to have fully decided whether Keatons character is actually a birdman or just delusional so they go for both in a clich├ęd ending.

The film had potential, a great cast, some good cinematography, but ultimately it was a disappointment. Certainly shouldn't be the Oscar favourite all the critics seem to be raving about.

SPECTRE: Formulaic, boring Bond!

SPECTRE contains all the famous elements of a James Bond film - fast cars, beautiful women, explosions, dastardly villains in secret lairs. The problem seems to be that the director and writers seemed more concerned with including all these elements than creating a coherent plot or memorable characters.

The film begins with a superlative tracking shot following James Bond through downtown Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festivities. The sequence shows great technical skill but it is brought to a shuddering halt. Too often in the film, good sequences are ruined by jarring moments that don't fit. Later, a car chase in Rome, contains moments of attempted humour that jar against the overall dark tone of the film. And SPECTRE is certainly dark, almost all scenes take place at night, and often in the dark of abandoned buildings. At the same time, the car chase lacks the tension of a classic Bond chase scene, seeming more like an advert for the beauty of Rome than Bond escaping with his life.

This chase follows a largely unnecessary diversion to meet Monica Belluci's gangsters moll. Her role is completely inconsequential to the film other than to send Bond to a meeting with the films main villain, Franz Oberhauser.

Too quickly, the meeting is over, and overall, Oberhauser features far too little in the film. Of course, this could just be a set-up for appearances in later films, but it leaves SPECTRE lacking in villainy. This isn't helped by the fact that Oberhauser's dastardly plot is incoherent, and not a particularly frightening prospect. Oberhauser's plot is to take over global surveillance systems which suggests the films desperate attempt to appear relevant in a world following the revelations of the NSA and Edward Snowden. Oberhauser's plan doesn't appear any worse than the reality of what is actually going on in the world. Furthermore, Oberhauser's intentions are complicated by his seeming desire for revenge against James Bond over old family connections, a plot point borrowed from Skyfall and Silva's desire for revenge on M.

And as has become de riguer for Bond films, there is a mole within MI5 who is working for the villain, but its obvious from the start who it is so there is no surprise in the reveal.

The film borrows heavily from earlier Bond films with references to From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice amongst others, as well as tying up loose ends from the previous three films.

This determination to pay homage detracts from the film as there is little original on show. Its a shame as the film has an excellent cast but in particular Christoph Waltz and Monica Bellucci are wasted. Lea Seydoux is good, but at times falls into the tropes of the Bond girls of old instead of the more nuanced female characters of the more recent films. It was nice to see more of Ben Whishaw as Q, but Ralph Fiennes is a huge step back from Judi Dench as M, while Moneypenny played by Naomie Harris fails to justify her larger than usual role in the film. Most worryingly Daniel Craig is on autopilot, seeming disinterested, no longer the perky young Bond of Casino Royale.

Overall, the film then is a disappointment. Sam Mendes brings nothing new here, hopefully the talk of him signing on for Bond 25 comes to nothing as the series needs a new direction.

The Big Short: A witty expose of the Wall Street crash of 2008

The Big Short focuses on four individuals on Wall Street who predicted the sub-prime mortgage crisis and banking collapse of 2008. Knowing that the housing bubble was going to burst they decided to bet against the banks by buying credit default swaps. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a hedge fund investor who in 2005 makes the prediction and starts the market on credit default swaps. Other investors, played by Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt soon get wind of Burrys prediction and decide to follow him.

The banks laugh about them as they are so confident about the security of the housing market but sell the credit default swaps thinking its easy money. But of course, as we know, these people were proved right as a mortgage crisis led to several banks collapsing while others were given huge government bailouts. When the housing market collapsed, these investors made billions, with Burry making a 489% profit on his investment!

The film does very well to explain the jargon behind the banking. It does so by regularly breaking the fourth wall as characters talk directly to the audience.

At the same time the film highlights the bravado of the banks and bankers who were so sure of the housing market that they walked straight into the crisis. Bankers are shown as narcissistic, greedy individuals who care only about making money and don't care who suffers. At the same time, the four who bet against the bankers are shown as the heroes of the film, as if they, unlike the bankers, have a conscience. This is despite the fact that they made huge amounts of money as a result of banks going into crisis which lead to millions in the USA losing their homes and jobs

Some of the characters do try and warn the banks they are heading for crisis, and also tip off the media, but they are ignored and ridiculed. One particularly memorable scene sees Carrell speaking at a debate at a bankers conference in Las Vegas. He is laughed at and ridiculed by a banker from Bear Stearns, while at the same time, the banks value is shown plummeting, an event that helped precipitate the crisis.

Unfortunately the film does descend into Wolf of Wall Street style excess at times when showing the bankers lifestyles. This can be wearying and seems to be a desperate attempt to add a bit of thrill to what is otherwise a very dialogue heavy film. And women have a very small role in the film, other than when they are strippers being objectified. By the time Marisa Tomei reappeared near the end of the film, I had forgotten that she was in it. Although this can be said to be a reflection of the real banking world, which is very male dominated.

Overall though, the film is enjoyable and informative. The film is very well acted, particularly by Steve Carrell who is on top form as the most cynical of the four. He is also the one who most realises who will suffer most from the banking crisis, its not the bankers or investors. Its the people who are evicted from their homes.

The film ends with the frustrating note that the banks who survived the crisis, are now engaging in exactly the same practices that led to the crisis, they have just changed the jargon. As we know, capitalism is bound up in boom and bust cycles, during the bust, some companies like Bear Stearns will go broke but others will survive and continue on. And it will be the ordinary people who pay for the damage. Ultimately, we have to change the system that is tied up in these institutions. To protect people, and end the greed and avarice of the wealthy and powerful, we need to get rid of capitalism.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

A 2011 report from San Francisco

This is an article I wrote in September 2011 in relation to protests against police brutality in San Francisco at the time. Given the current events in the USA, its still relevant so thought I would share it again.


Report from an American city up in arms

Protest is alive and well in the US, well at least in San Francisco, where weekly protests have been held against police brutality. This follows the recent killing of two people by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police. Kenneth Harding, a 19 year old African-American was shot in the back as he ran away from police who suspected him of having not paid his $2 fare on the BART train. Charles Hill, a homeless man was gunned down on a station platform. These two killings by BART police took place in the space of a month.

These events have led to the setting up of the No Justice, No BART Campaign who have organised the weekly protests. Targeting busy BART stations during evening rush hour, they have provoked a hugely disproportionate response by the Police. Police have shut off mobile phone use in BART trains and stations to stop protesters from organizing. Witnesses to the killings and protesters have been intimidated and even thrown in prison.

For the duration of the first two protests, police closed all Downtown BART stations also affecting the MUNI subway system which shares many of the same stations. On Thursday 8th September, protesters at Powell St. station, (one of the busiest in the city) attempted to open the station gates so passengers could get on the trains without paying. The police responded by closing the station and kettling around 100 protesters inside. Other protesters outside handed out leaflets to bewildered would-be passengers, and shouted slogans and abuse at the riot cops blocking the station entrance.

 

The BART serves some of the poorest areas in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay area. The two men shot dead by the police were both shot in poor neighbourhoods in San Francisco. This is part of a growing problem of police brutality in the poorest areas of American cities. In Oakland, which is connected to San Francisco by the BART, and is much less well off, statistics show that 80% of the time when police draw their guns they shoot. This has contributed to a growing fear and distrust of the police in poor areas, particularly in black and Latino areas, as police patrol these areas heavily armed. This fear would likely have contributed to Kenneth Harding running away from police despite the fact they only suspected him of fare dodging.

 

These actions have brought into question the whole necessity of police on trains and in stations as well as the whole need for transit fares. Statistics have shown that the amount raised by ticket sales only covers the costs of issuing and policing the tickets. Other costs are covered by general city funds. So by getting rid of fares and policing of them, the BART system could be made both safer and more accessible.

 

The issues of the BART police relate into wider issues in American society today. With the continuing economic crisis, homelessness and poverty are on the rise. Public services to help people get out of these situations are having their funding cut just when they are most needed.

In San Francisco, instead of increasing funding for homeless services, the authorities have introduced a law against people sitting or lying down on the street. Of course, criminalising sleeping on the street does nothing to solve the problem and only increases anger of people already frustrated by cutbacks in essential services. This feeds into the anger and distrust of police and authority, who are responding with force and zero tolerance for dissent.

 

What is happening in San Francisco though is only a microcosm of what is happening around the United States. San Francisco is largely quite a wealthy city without the poor ghettos that exist in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. All the conditions are in place and it would be no surprise for events similar to the recent riots in England to happen in these cities.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Ireland, I Despair!

First I must apologise if this article comes across as a rant, but the events of the past week have left me in such despair I couldn't stop myself. Ireland has made so much progress in the last 25 years and a conservative minority are determined to hold it back. During the past week they had two victories.

First came the decision from the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) to uphold a complaint from the Family and Media Association (FMA), an extremely conservative Catholic organisation. The complaint was that a discussion on the Derek Mooney show on RTE radio about same sex marriage had not been balanced. The discussion was about the day being the anniversary of the first civil partnerships in Ireland and involved someone who had got a civil partnership on the first day they were legal. Tiernan Brady of GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) was also on the show. Derek Mooney is also gay, so there were three gay men on the show, talking about a significant milestone in the history of LGBT rights in Ireland. It was in this context that they discussed the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Of course, in relation to referendums, RTE is supposed to be completely balanced and impartial so as not to influence the vote in any way. Although try telling that to RTE when there was a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty or the referendum on the Austerity Treaty, when RTE clearly favoured the government position.

The complaint here was made though that there was no opposing views voiced in this incident, that Derek Mooney should have balanced the views of his guests. What the BAI and the FMA are basically saying is that Mooney should have been obliged to have an anti-equality bigot on his show to say why Mooney does not deserve equality.
But then what next? Are we going to say that a black presenter must have Aine NiChonaill, the notorious racist, on their show? Or if a Jewish person were presenting the show, they must have a Nazi on it? That's ridiculous, and downright offensive. And nobody would say that, but for some reason, when it comes to LGBT people, and their rights, suddenly they must be balanced with extreme bigots.
And it just follows on from the ridiculous case where RTE paid 'compensation' to John Waters, the bigot and 'columnist' and the Iona Institute after Rory O'Neill aka Miss Panti Bliss, called them homophobes on TV.

The conservative, predominantly Catholic right are running scared though. Poll after poll in recent years has shown a majority of people support same-sex marriage rights as well as a womens right to choose, the other great fear of conservatives. And they are fighting back, trying to shut down debate and discussion as they know they are losing the propaganda war.

But the polls bring me on to the second, horrible news item of the week. I thought after the case of Savita Halapannavar in 2012, I could never be surprised by the abortion issue in Ireland anymore. But when it comes to abortion, or womens rights in general, Ireland always has the capacity to shock.

At the weekend, the story of a young woman was revealed. She was newly arrived in Ireland in April, most likely an asylum seeker, a rape survivor, and 8 weeks pregnant. She asked for an abortion which was denied her.
Being forced to continue the pregnancy she attempted suicide at 16 weeks. She then went to a GP in July who referred her to a hospital where she was assessed to see if she was eligible for an abortion under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy (PLDP) Act. Due to her attempted suicide and mental state, she should have been eligible under the law, but she was denied the abortion. She then went on hunger and thirst strike at which point the HSE got a High Court order allowing her to be force fed. In the court, the young woman, and the foetus had separate legal representation. Yes, a foetus had its own lawyer, paid for by the state, ergo, by us, the taxpayers. She was then deceived into ending her hunger strike and then persuaded or more likely coerced into having a caesarean section to deliver the foetus prematurely after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

What is most shocking and horrifying, and I did feel sick when first reading about the case, is that this women endured physical and mental torture at the hands of the state. A woman who was already incredibly vulnerable, she had just survived a rape, she was in a new country, with not much English. And who was so traumatised by the pregnancy that she attempted suicide, and later went on hunger strike.

At no point during this case, was the womans life or health considered, or at least considered first. The foetus came first, when the woman was force fed, it was to keep the foetus alive until it became viable for a C-section to happen. The poor woman had no bodily autonomy during this pregnancy, but particularly after she came into the remit of the HSE when she was referred to the hospital.

When pro-choice activists warned last year that the PLDP Bill did not go far enough and that it would create problems and confusion, we were dismissed by the government who said the legislation went as far as necessary and that it would protect women. And while this young woman might not have died, she has been left traumatised for life. She suffered treatment at the hands of the state that no one should have to face.

And when I say state, this case clearly highlights the interconnectedness of the ruling class running the state. The womans suffering resulted from collaboration between politicians and the church who continue to criminalise abortion, healthcare providers who deny abortion services, and the judiciary who back them up.

In the same way the BAI case showed the collaboration between those at the top of the Irish media, the regulatory bodies and the legal professions.

All working together to preserve the status quo, an Ireland in which women have no rights or bodily integrity while pregnant. An Ireland in which LGBT people are only tolerated as long as they don't talk about it or demand too much equality. Too much equality? I didn't think that was possible, but clearly it is a problem that the likes of the FMA and Iona Institute have identified.

I hope now, the next year will see a reassertion of progress and moves toward equality. The referendum on same-sex marriage takes place in the Spring. I am determined that the silent majority in this country who support equality will no longer be silenced by a vocal and increasingly shrill minority who would deny such equality.

Hopefully there will also be a referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment as that has to be the first step in decriminalising abortion in Ireland and giving women the right to choose. The government would love to just ignore the issue and hope it goes away again, and it is pro-choice activists duty now to ensure that the issue stays alive and that a referendum is very much kept on the agenda.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

2014-15 Season Preview


Premiership Prediction 2014-15


1.   Chelsea

2.   Arsenal

3.   Manchester City

4.   Liverpool

5.   Manchester United

6.   Tottenham Hotspurs

7.   Newcastle

8.   Everton

9.   West Ham United

10.               Stoke

11.               Southampton

12.               Sunderland

13.               Hull

14.               Crystal Palace

15.               West Bromwich Albion

16.               Queens Park Rangers

17.               Leicester City

18.               Aston Villa

19.               Swansea City

20.               Burnley

 

This looks set to be Chelsea’s year. They have made the best signings and Mourinho is in his second season since returning to Chelsea. In his second seasons at Porto and Inter, he won the league and Champions League doubles, and won his only La Liga title in his second season at Real Madrid.
Diego Costa is a good bet to finish top scorer, as he has all the attributes to thrive in the Premiership, and he brings the aggression as well as goal-scoring threat that was lacking in the Chelsea attack last season. Fabregas should settle into the midfield smoothly as replacement for Lampard. And for the first time since, this team resembles closely the phenomenal Chelsea team of 2005. The only question mark is over Torres and Drogba as back up to Costa. Torres isn’t performing and Drogba might not have the legs anymore.
 
Arsenal have strengthened significantly this summer with Ospina, Debuchy and Chambers being significant improvements on Fabianski, Sagna and Jenkinson. Chambers has looked surprisingly calm and assured so far. But the big change is the signing of Alexis Sanchez. He brings the pace, aggression and directness that was lacking in the Arsenal attack last season, particularly when Walcott got injured. As well as his own attributes, Sanchez should help bring out the best in Mesut Ozil as well after he had a quiet first season.
If Arsenal can bring in the centre back and defensive midfielder they still need, and they have been linked with a number of them, then they should be able to put in a sustained title challenge.
They should also be helped by Shad Forsythe, the fitness coach who will help reduce the amount and duration of injuries which have cost Arsenal so dearly in the past 10 years.

Manchester City might be reigning champions but they have stagnated so far this summer. They have strengthened the defensive side with Caballero, Mangala, Sagna and Fernando which should help cut out the defensive mistakes from last season. But with Negredo injured, and Aguero so injury-prone this year, City could struggle up front. And if anything happens to Toure, they will be in trouble because Lampard is certainly not an adequate replacement.
 
Next will be Manchester United and Liverpool. Which order they finish in depends very much on who they sign within the next two weeks.
So far United have signed Herrera and Shaw, both of whom are good players, but they will not be enough to mount a title challenge, and probably not enough to get in the top four. They still need a couple of defenders and a midfielder. They will be helped though by playing fewer games due to not being in Europe.

Liverpool sold the best player in the league and have spent the money on expanding the squad, although so far, with the exception of Dejan Lovren, it seems to be more a matter of quantity rather than quality. They desperately need to sign a better striker than Lambert or they will struggle to replace the goals of Suarez. Markovic, Can and Moreno could take time to settle and are unlikely to make an immediate impact. Lallana is overrated at £25m, and when you consider that a player like Toni Kroos moved for less than that this summer, clearly that money could have been better spent.
 
I’d expect Tottenham to improve this season under new manager Mauricio Pocchettino. So far their transfer business has been quiet but if they sign Wilfried Bony and Mateo Musacchio, as expected, they should have enough to challenge for the top four as they already have a very strong squad. Having had a season to settle in, Christian Eriksen, could be one of the top players in the league this season.
 
Newcastle have done some very good transfer business this summer. Janmaat is a more than adequate replacement for Debuchy while they have significantly strengthened in their weak spot in attack with Riviere, Ayoze, Ferreyra and DeJong while Cabella is an outstanding playmaker and a real coup of a signing. If they can maintain some consistency they should finish in the top 8.
 
A lot of pundits are tipping Everton to challenge the top four but they have not strengthened at all from last season. There is a lot of talk about the £28m spent on Romelu Lukaku, nearly doubling their transfer record, but he was at the club last season, as was their other major signing Gareth Barry. They might have been better off bringing in Bony and Remy who would have cost a combined 28m and would have provided greater options and more goals. The on-loan Atsu replaces the on-loan Deulofeu who was a better player. That just leaves Muhammed Besic, who has potential, but his youth and lack of experience, as well as the strength Everton already have in midfield, mean it could take a while for him to break into the team. The squad is also likely to be stretched by playing in the Europa League especially as the likes of Distin, Jagielka and Osman are all getting on.
 
West Ham and Stoke have both made decent signings and should finish comfortably in mid-table, while Sunderland should improve after their narrow escape last season.
 
Southampton have been decimated in the transfer window, although they did very well to get £88m for Lallana, Shaw, Lovren and Chambers. Pocchettino is also a big loss. Ronald Koeman has a very mixed record as manager, he did well with Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord but disappointed at Benfica and was disastrous at Valencia and AZ. He has made some good signings though, even if they paid way too much for Shane Long. If the new signings settle they should be comfortable in mid-table, if they don’t, they could be in for a relegation battle.
 
That leaves the bottom eight teams, any of whom could be relegated, depending on injuries, suspensions, transfers or even sheer bad luck.

Hull could finish higher, but have just sold their best striker, and unless they can get someone in fast they could struggle for goals. They should have enough quality in the rest of the team to stay up though.

Crystal Palace have had a disappointing summer, missing out on all their main transfer targets. This has now led to rumours of manager Tony Pulis being unhappy and wanting to leave. If he stays, they should have enough to be safe, although it will be tougher than last season and it certainly won’t be pretty. If Pulis leaves, at this late stage of the summer, they will struggle.
 
West Brom have appointed Alan Irvine who is completely unproven at this level. It is a gamble, but they showed with Steve Clarke in 2012 that it can pay off. They have made some excellent signings which should strengthen their defence. Much depends on Ideye Brown in attack, I’m not sure if he will be good enough. They will be hard to beat though and despite most pundits predicting they will be relegated I think they will stay up.
 
I expect QPR to be the best of the promoted teams. They have plenty of players with premiership experience as well as Harry Redknapp who will be keen to do well in what will probably be his last job. They have also made some good signings while clearing out a lot of the bad ones left behind by Mark Hughes.
 
Leicester have a good blend of experience and youth and having dominated the Championship last season should just about have enough to stay up.
 
Aston Villa are the fourth most successful team in the history of English football and have been in the top division continuously since 1988. They have hovered around the relegation zone for much of the 90’s and 00’s though and this looks like it will be the season they get relegated. They only just avoided it last season, and so far this summer they have signed Joe Cole, Senderos and Richardson all on free transfers and Aly Cissokho for £2m. Cole is long past his best and barely played last season at West Ham, Senderos has never quite been good enough at this level and Richardson was relegated with Fulham last season. Meanwhile Cissokho flopped last season at Liverpool. Villa are too reliant on Benteke in attack who probably would have left by now if he wasn’t injured. And Ron Vlaar, the captain and defensive rock looks set to leave.

There has been a lot of speculation that the new assistant manager, Roy Keane will replace manager, Paul Lambert if Villa start badly although its hard to see how that will make any difference considering that the owner is refusing to spend any money. It’s a sad way to go, cast aside by a disinterested American owner, but it shows the perils of being bought out by businessmen who have no previous connection to the club.
 
We still don’t know the full reason why Michael Laudrup was sacked by Swansea last season. They were struggling, but given his previous achievements he should have been given more time. His replacement, Garry Monk looks out of his depth and is unlikely to last the full season. A number of key players have left, and their replacements are vastly inferior. Loaning out Michu is particularly baffling. With Wilfried Bony looking set to join either Tottenham or Liverpool, Swansea will struggle badly.
 
Burnley’s promotion was a massive achievement, considering their budget and size of their squad. But they look out of their depth here particularly as they haven’t managed to make any noteworthy signings. This season could be a long hard slog for them.