Orange is the New Black: Season 3 review

June 14, 2015 by  
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orange is the new black

Now in its third season, Orange is the New Black has plumped for a fluid style of storytelling, allowing the interweaving strands of plot to meander and mingle together organically, rather than being satellites orbiting a dominant narrative. This new style is well suited to the talented ensemble cast and gives writer Jenji Kohan more space to unflinchingly tackle a wider spectrum of issues than the two previous seasons and the quality of the show is all the better for it.

The first season was framed with the story of Piper Chapman, the alpha and omega of floppy blonde wank. The story of the poor little rich girl recoiling with Bambi eyes at the criminal savages before finding it within herself to extend acceptance and benevolence to her fellow detainees could verge on tiresome, particularly as Piper, a drug trafficker, was probably one of the few inmates who deserved a bit of incarceration. The show was more sophisticated in its outlook than some of its harsher critics gave it credit for. The implication was that prison ought to be the great social equaliser – status on the outside world evaporates, your uniform is beige and your arse is fair game for a cavity search. And yet, prison is not an equaliser. The structures of oppression and privilege are replicated over and over again within its walls. Yet, allowing one of the most privileged characters to dictate the interpretation almost made the show itself complicit in the very thing it was criticising.

This season does not allow itself to fall into that trap. The viewpoint of the marginalised is key this time around as the show launches into a wide-range critique of the long and short term impact on privatisation of public services, the inhumanity of capitalist venture and the damage it inflicts on the vulnerable. It’ll make you feel awful and sad and a bit sick. But in a fun way!

Characters that have previously been side-lined are given more focus. Just as the show transformed Suzanne from a seemingly offensive stereotype into one of the most beloved characters, Chang, Big Boo and silent Norma are all given their turn in the spotlight. Even the awful white trash women, the only disadvantaged group that liberals don’t feel guilty about sneering at, are fleshed out and thoroughly humanised. No character is allowed to be light relief or simplistically painted. In Orange is the New Black, ugly waters run deep. Ridicule is always undercut with venomous brutality and the focus is always on the victim in their suffering, their flaws and their humanity.

Mental health issues have been danced around since season one, mainly focussing in on Suzanne. This season focusses more on the common and garden variety of mental illness; depression. Depicting depression on screen is always difficult, mainly because depressed people are deeply uninteresting to look at. They don’t do much. It’s kind of the whole thing. This problem is often dealt with dramatically by glamorising the illness. Orange is the New Black manages to swerve past both of these, creating storylines that are neither boring nor sensational. Another notoriously difficult issue for dramatists is rape and again, the show does an excellent job, neither descending into mawkishness nor insensitivity.

Women’s prisons in America and the UK are stuffed to the rafters with depressed women and abused women so it’s great to see both of these tackled so uncompromisingly. The third bread and butter staple of the women’s prison system are drug addicts. Here, the show doesn’t pull its punches here either. Unlike depressed women, addicts are not boring. They are, on the other hand, deeply unpleasant and irritating as fuck. Nicky is an awful, awful wanker. She’s self-destructive, selfish and she refuses to take responsibility for her ridiculous actions. She’s also one of the most lovable characters on the show. The consequences of her love-hate affair with heroin have devastating consequences in this series and the ugly nature of addiction and the inhumanity of the counterproductive war on drugs are spelled out in a beautiful and subtly crafted sequence.

In Orange is the New Black we have an unlikely successor to The Wire. Both shows share a cause – a humanist-orientated critique of America’s bureaucracy, political short sightedness and the effects of pathological capitalism. While not as literary or as comprehensive as The Wire, Orange is the New Black is still capable of packing a serious political punch in amongst the hot lesbians, boobs and dollops of vaginal discharge.

Second Coming

May 18, 2015 by  
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Second Coming 1

Magic and realism combine like Jamaican patois and cockney English in Debbie Tucker Green’s debut feature. The result of this composite equation is a compelling, atmospheric, and wholly original film.

Set in the suburbs of South London, Second Coming pertains to the definitive meaning of that phrase, without Marshall’s un-expecting mother (Jax) explicitly stating anything miraculous about her pregnancy within the film’s 105 minute running time. Instead, the narrative’s focus remains on the triumvirate of performances from Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, and their 11-year old son, Kai Francis Lewis.

Suitably, the strength of Second Coming is in its performances, which Green’s directorial style demands a great deal from. Elba is required to tone down some of his strengths in order to play a struggling, but essentially good father and husband. Marshall is a women scarred by her own emotional battles with pregnancy; JJ (Kai Lewis) is her only child from five pregnancies, and it is in Lewis that the high quality watermark of performances is sealed.

The intriguing editing of the film hacks away at time, periodically dropping in on this ordinary family at various stages in Jax’s unordinary pregnancy. Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (though the timeframe here is 9 months rather than 18 years), the moments which Green’s camera does drop in on aren’t particularly important in and of themselves. Instead, they provide a complete picture of this family’s everyday life: preparing food, visiting family, and the drawn out tension – and corresponding bursts of frustration – that play out in between.

All the while, and to the frustration of her friends, Jax remains unwilling to open up about her pregnancy. Is there another man? Is she anxious about losing it? Or is the answer something altogether more metaphysical? Answers aren’t particularly forthcoming, and Green isn’t interested in teasing audiences with clues either.

For some viewers, the lack of emotion portrayed by Jax – the film’s central character – could prove testing. Though this sanitization of overt feelings, and the whole process of bottling things up inside, becomes a theme that is explored in the film. With one of the most uncharacteristically melodramatic scenes coming as Elba vents his anger and confusion toward the ‘elephant in the womb’.

Certainly from what is on offer here, it’s clear that Green has the original perspective and flair for cinema that is going to yield an interesting collection of films.

Second Coming is released in the UK on 5 June 2015.

Benefits Street: Series 2

May 17, 2015 by  
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The first episode of the new season of Benefits Street, based in the Tilery Estate in Stockton-on-Tees, strangely enough offered a degree of positivity that was sorely missing from the first. Some characters are portrayed in a more sympathetic manner, explanations are offered for their continued reliance on benefits that even the most hard-hearted couldn’t criticize, and attempts are made to offer an insight into the disillusionment many disadvantaged people feel with the establishment. It’s important to get the recognition of this out of the way, though, before making the main point—that this marginal improvement does not redeem the series, nor allow it to climb out of the poverty porn cesspit that constitutes the very worst kind of elitism our modern popular culture can muster up.

The matriarch role of this series is shared by best friends of 20 years, Julie and Sue, who have 11 kids between them and are both on benefits. Sue, we are told, hasn’t worked for a year, and Julie for 15—something the show wastes no time getting out there, playing into the hands of those who would berate poor women for having more kids than they can afford. Those who make such snap judgments though will later be left feeling rather foolish, when Julie—a former Youth and Community worker—reveals the tragic details of her life, tearfully recalling the moment when her now 15-year-old son suffered a cardiac arrest as a baby and died in her arms. Though he was revived through the determined efforts of a crash team—to whom Julie pledges any potential future lottery wins—he was left severely brain damaged and entirely dependent on round-the-clock care from his devoted mother.

Caring and motherly by nature, both women support their neighbours, regularly cooking meals for the more vulnerable amongst them. This spirit of solidarity is touching, and may hope to counteract the run of the mill demonization of communities such as these. Of course, Channel 4 can’t allow their subjects to get away that easily—positive aspects are counteracted by the handling of other characters more ripe for exploitative consumption. One star of the series, Maxwell, is a drug user and repeated offender—his criminal record includes incidents of burglary, fraud and shining lasers at police helicopters—who sells cannabis from his flat and collects £500 a month in Income Support and Disability Allowance on account of memory loss problems, clearly implied to be a result of cannabis use. Footage showing Maxwell bagging up weed, as well as taking a large number of Diazepam pills before turning up 45 minutes late to a court appearance—he was let off anyway—has been criticised, and many have asked whether he was naively undertaking acts of bravado for the benefit of the cameras, unaware of possible consequences. Portrayed as the typical undeserving recipient of state handouts, Maxwell is ultimately likely to damage the reception of other characters that might otherwise be judged deserving. Its notable that no attempt is made to offer a wider socio-cultural explanation for Maxwell’s behaviour and incarceration at only 18, whether it’s a result of his childhood, economic factors, a failure in the education system, or any other reason.

Particularly unpalatable in this first episode were the relentless attempts at self-defense through deflecting blame onto reporters who had gotten wind of the new location. Whilst rightfully challenging the authority of reporters to take pictures of unconsenting subjects, including children, as well as documenting the false claims excreted by newspapers such as The Sun, the episode sidesteps the issue of whether a documentary subject can ever really give consent, given they cannot truly know how they will be portrayed. Alex Cunningham, MP for the local area, makes his first ever visit to the street to criticize the exploitation of his vulnerable constituents—though making sure to bring his own news crew each time—and is ridiculed by residents who feel his concerns are insincere. Whilst this segment does well to highlight the isolation of the estate and its lack of facilities, offering concerning viewers a chance to analyse why a pocketed community, abandoned by the outside world for all intents and purposes, may suffer from incidents of crime and drug use, it does feel like it’s primary purpose is to defend Channel 4 from criticism—one resident declares that they, unlike Cunningham, are giving her a voice, no doubt to the glee of producers.

Benefits Street represents the very worst of trash TV. Laughably posing as groundbreaking journalism, shows such as this serve only to perpetuate extremely damaging myths concerning the abuse of our welfare system, which pave the way for further demonistation of our most vulnerable and needy. The première of the second series was postponed until after the election, for fear it would interfere with the result. This may sound admirable to some, but really the damage has already been done.

Benefits Street is airing on Monday nights at 9pm on Channel 4.

Rory Bremner’s Election Report

May 13, 2015 by  
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Rory Bremner 1

When it comes to comedians and elections there is a part of me that is ever so slightly conspiracy theorist: in that I think the people who are most likely to be shy Tories are comedians.

Most say they are left-wing, but there is the part of me that secretly suspects that they vote right-wing because the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Farage are easier to mock and make their jobs easier. However, I don’t consider this to be true of Rory Bremner, but that’s mainly because Ed Miliband is much funnier to impersonate.

The Election Report was a follow-up to the Coalition Report from earlier in the year and features several of the same elements as before: informed stand-up and impressions from Bremner, a wide range of sketches and parodies featuring performers such as John Bird, Sara Pascoe and Fay Ripley; and other stand-up performers, namely Matt Forde who had previously worked for the Labour Party under Tony Blair.

I’m very fond of Bremner as a performer. His knowledge of politics is something that is often lacking in other topical comedy shows. For example there was one routine about the Conservative manifesto having three-times as many words about polar bears than welfare cuts. Bremner is also one of the best impressionists around, with his more recent takes on Nigel Farage being very good.

Regarding the other highlights of the programme, the other big highlight came from Forde when he talked about a piece in the Sunday Telegraph where they interviewed several party leaders about the one thing they would change about themselves, and Farage said that he thought was that he was too tolerant.

On the downside, it does feel a bit safe. There are certain elements of the election and the aftermath that were not covered. It seems that even BBC comedy shows are not that keen on talking about the riots either. Anyone fancy sending Bremner some tweets?

Beat the Brain

May 11, 2015 by  
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Beat the Brain 1

Beat the Brain is not really a typical quiz, because it is not a game based on general knowledge. It is not a game that you can revise for.

Hosted by Countryfile’s John Craven, the show see a team of four players taking on a set of questions which have been set by “The Brain” – which is actually a computer graphic of a brain voiced by comedian Josie Lawrence. However, instead of testing the players on their knowledge of history, geography or culture, they face a series of IQ test-style mental challenges that each fit into a particular category or “Zone”. These are “Logic”, “Memory”, “Orientation”, “Observation”, “Language” and “Multi-Tasking”.

Each question the contestants get right adds three bonus seconds to their “Brain Bank”, which gives the players added bonus time in the final round. The finale sees all the contestants having to answer similar style questions to those they have already faced previously. The total amount of time to do it is two minutes plus the amount of seconds they won in the “Brain Bank”. The jackpot is £3,000, but once they use use all the money in the “Brain Bank” and start using their allocated two minutes they lose £25 per second.

Once you get over the slightly daft idea of a computerised brain providing the questions, the quiz itself becomes rather enjoyable. The main reason for this is because just about anyone can have a go. Whether you know all the prime ministers or the elements of the periodic table is irrelevant. It is all about mental ability, short-term memory, basic arithmetic, spelling and so forth. The other thing is that everyone has a strong subject and everyone has a weak one. I for example was hopeless at “Multi-Tasking” – talk about fulfilling the male stereotype.

“The Brain” herself does seem a bit daft at first but you eventually get over this, and Craven and Lawrence both make the show entertaining. If there is a problem it is that because this is a BBC game show they cannot give away a huge amount of money. The total jackpot may be £3,000, but that is split between all four contestants. That means the maximum any individual can get in this show is £750. If winning more money is what you want, you are better off taking part on another show.

But as the format and the questions themselves go, Beat the Brain is a pleasantly enjoyable show.

Beat the Brain is on BBC Two at 18.30 on weekdays

BBC Election 2015 Coverage – On The Night

May 8, 2015 by  
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Election 1

On the basis of all of the opinion polls the election coverage was shaping up like an Antonioni film –long-winded ennui and listless drifting. This all changed with the shock exit poll when the coverage turned into a joyful Hollywood ending or unrelenting torture porn, depending on your point of view. The Tories had decisively won the day, 1992 had come again and no one saw it coming. Someone must be voting for them, they’re just not owning up to it.

The election poll shocked everyone in the BBC studio and political guests went into a collective state of denial and disorientation. The unravelling of logic reached peak with Jeremy Vine’s unreasonably zany pop-up appearances that at one point, involved him standing in front of a bluescreen image, feigning panic that his ‘swingometer’ was going to ‘break’. “Even with the recalibration!” he yelped.

What is this country and why is it? It’s three o’clock in the morning. It’s the election coverage. A man on the television is springing up and down like a March Hare in a vortex of swirling eighties graphics, and people accept this as a totally ordinary way to carry on. This is not the time or the place for avant-garde hullaballoo. Take your Amstrad PCC and fuck off to Tomorrow’s World where you belong.

Moving on…it’s a very controversial thing in this day and age to suggest that politicians are human beings with thoughts, feelings and genitals but Emily Maitlis was determined to act as the nation’s conscience and continually demanded that we look at the human stories behind the numbers, and she tapped into something. This was a savage election but there was a distinct lack of blood lust.  The closest thing this election had to a Portillo moment was the ousting of the Wicked Witch of West Wirral, Esther McVey, and she had to go ruin it by plainly holding back tears and smiling bravely like she had emotions or whatever.

Prior to the election, it was common opinion that you must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the self-inflicted devastation of the Liberal Democrats, whose night’s spoils amounted to 8 seats and 335 lost deposits. It looked like a classic tale of hubris. Icarus had flown too close to the sun and now he was coming crashing back down to Earth. But as it turns out that looking at splattered political corpses isn’t as much fun as it sounds. It’s very difficult to pull off a morally righteous smirk at Vince Cable looking like a bereft Mr Chips. Worst of all, the greatest proportion of the damage was meted out to the Liberal Democrats courtesy of their coalition partners – the final humiliation and no natural  justice at all.

It will come as no surprise to anyone with a sense of proportion that Liberal Democrats are joined in the land of impending irrelevance by UKIP. As the night proceeded, it transpired that the groundswell of the People’s Army was nothing more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Far from changing the political landscape, UKIP lost a seat. Farage, like all poor workmen, blamed his tools – the electoral system, thereby faring slightly better than Neil Kinnock who simply blamed the idiocy of the electorate for Labour’s decimation.

Astute commentators explained the reasons behind Labour’s dramatic failure competently enough. True, the lack of a coherent economic argument played a significant role, but nothing crushed them more than the complete rejection of the Westminster parties by the Scottish electorate, not even Miliband’s bad table manners. The seismic-shifting victory of the SNP which was the true story of the night. Throughout Scotland, seat after seat fell to Nicola Sturgeon’s party with record-breaking swing after record-breaking swing. Some people might think it was quite important. The guests in the studio treated it with an amused sort of detachment.

After smiling indulgently at the celebrating Scottish nationalists like they were quirky, dancing pixies instead of a dynamic and powerful political force, the BBC proceeded to almost entirely ignore the political landscape of Wales, except in marginal Conservative seats. Meanwhile, loads of interesting things went on in Northern Ireland. I know that because I read it in the Belfast Telegraph. Despite declaring that the Northern Irish parties were ‘finally relevant’ (and oh, little Ulster eyes did spring sparkly tears at such fulsome praise) the BBC still managed to ignore them in their entirety all night long.

The media’s blatant disregard for anything that happens outside of the confines of England passed irritating in this election cycle and hit outright insulting. Northern Ireland have taken the worst deal; being excluded from the leader’s debates, being excluded from nationwide forecasts and continually referred to as a homogenous bloc of ‘Other’ instead of by their party names. This is not a question of proportional representation. The DUP, the SDLP, the UUP and Sinn Fein all took more seats than UKIP and combined received less than a fraction of their coverage.

With that in mind it was something of a surprise to hear BBC personalities concern trolling the Conservatives about their apathy towards the Union. Physician, heal thyself. The BBC have shown nothing but a reluctantly dutiful interest in anyone lacking an English accent in the course of this election and as the Scottish people have decisively shown; this really isn’t going to slide anymore.

Home Fires

April 29, 2015 by  
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Home Fires 1

For fans of ITV drama, the announcement of Downton Abbey’s coming demise may have been disheartening news. Perhaps the arrival of Home Fires will help fill the hole in our hearts.

Set in picturesque Great Paxford in the Cheshire countryside, Home Fires follows a group of women as the storm clouds of World War II draw in, disrupting the lives of ordinary people up and down the country. You may think you know the story of the women of WWII, but think again. Whilst we all know the tales of the inspirational young women who rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in at the ammunitions factories, or else raced into the military hospitals to do their bit, there are many more that remain untold—primarily of those living in rural areas.

This is something Home Fires tries to address, by centering on the Great Paxford Women’s Institute (WI). This may not sound a particularly exciting prospect—aside from kinky photo shoots, the WI tends to conjure up images of stuffy town halls, copious amounts of tea and biscuits, knitting circles, cake baking and a lot of old old-age pensioners. Not very glamorous stuff. However, the story of the WI during WWII is actually pretty fascinating; aside from supporting the war effort in material ways, they also provided an essential site of community and support for British women during the nation’s darkest days—and not just for the elderly.

Home Fires is inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book, Jam Busters, which tells the tale of the WI’s jam-making initiative. In ITV’s fictionalized account, acclaimed actress Samantha Bond plays the formidable Francis Barden, who spearheads the hedgerow-scouring movement. As Francis explains, the first casualties of WWI were merchant shippers; by encouraging Britain’s women to maximize homegrown resources and minimise reliance on importation, Frances hopes to save scores of lives. Though the WI members of Great Paxford hail from a relatively small region, the drama manages to include a diverse selection of women, from old to young, rich and poor, some happily married, others ready and willing for a wartime romance, offering something for every viewer. From farmer’s, doctor’s and butcher’s wives, school teachers and mothers, these are the women who have to carry on in the face of fear and uncertainty, both for the nation and for the fate of their loved ones as they’re shipped off to the front.

Feminists will love the more industrious women, often as involved in their husband’s profession as the men themselves, left to take on the work of two when their husband’s itchy feet carry them off to the trenches—such as farmer Steph Farrow, played by Downton Abbey’s Clare Calbraith, whose husband enlists in spite of his essential work exempting him from conscription. Despite the female-heavy cast, Home Fires has an array of equally talented male actors playing both the men who went to war and the ones who stayed behind. Expect to see a lot of comparisons to BBC One’s Call the Midwife­­—the writers grew notably irked at repeated attempts to liken the two in the post-screening Q&A, cautioning against reductive comparisons simply on the basis of a shared time period and the fact that they’re both women’s dramas.  And in any case, they rightly pointed out, you wouldn’t feel the need to call a male-centered show a “men’s drama”, so why lump them in the same bag?

As starring actress Fenella Woolgar puts it, this is a drama about introspective, normal people in an age of egotism and reality television. Living in today’s world of increasing isolation, individualism and loss of community feeling, Home Fires reminds us of the role of friendship and solidarity when dark times hit. Interestingly, the WI played a crucial role in the formation of the welfare estate post-war, through their reports on the health of city evacuees—surely this may serve as a poignant point of contemplation for viewers today, uncertain as the future is for our public services.

Politics doesn’t play a massive role in Home Fires, its true, but the spirit of community and collectivism that it dramatizes is political enough; the war taught our country many lessons that are worth reminding ourselves of.  Although at times feeling a little corny, the personal attachment the writers and cast feel to the material clearly shines through. It is certainly not without its dark points, in particular a disturbing—distressing, even—story of domestic abuse, overall Home Fires manages to strike the right balance of dark and light, both optimistic and destitute, which works together to create a genuinely heartwarming, impactful and compelling package. This is the world war, but certainly not as we’ve seen it before.

The first episode of Home Fires airs on ITV on 3rd May at 21.00.

The Babadook

April 25, 2015 by  
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Babadook 1

“See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink”. I bury my head underneath the covers. For the first time in years I find safety in that childhood tactic. I shut my eyes tight for good measure.

This is all the fault of The Babadook. I’m now haunted by a pencil sketch of a razor fingered monster, but also by the fevered story of a mother battling this demon (or her own, or both).

Director Jennifer Kent offers us very little comfort in this claustrophobic chiller. From the off, it is clear that this is a broken family – grief, mental illness, financial troubles and alienation plague mother and son long before the appearance of any monster.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow worn down by both grief and her live-wire son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Davis gives a masterful performance as a long-suffering mother; perfecting the forced composure of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Similarly, Wiseman is brilliant as the odd kid. He is a screaming, antisocial and impossibly irritating child. Perfect bait for the paranormal.

Then one night he finds a new bedtime story on his bookshelf: Mister Babadook. After they read the sinister story, with its disturbing illustrations and foreboding ending, Amelia comforts her son who is wailing in terror. It’s only a story after all.

Except, it seems that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. From this point Amelia unravels. She becomes possessed by a demon – whether it’s the Babadook or the ghost that’s always been haunting her grief-stricken psyche is up for debate.

The Babadook works not by bombarding us with bogeymen and things that go bump in the night. Instead, it taps into a different piece of childhood fear: the idea of a mother turned monster; of security lost. The unease is compounded by a colour palette that washes out any cheer from this corner of South Australia. Even the ending brings little comfort. The lines between the real and imagined are just too entwined.

And that is what makes Kent’s horror so powerful. Our adult rationality fights with childhood anxiety and we’re left exactly where The Babadook wants us: not knowing the difference between story and truth.  

Out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

April 23, 2015 by  
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The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies 1

The concluding part of The Hobbit culminates in action, drama, and a tying-up of events in order to link them to The Lord of the Rings, in what also appears to be Peter Jackson’s final film set in Middle-Earth.

Continuing from The Desolation of Smaug, this film begins with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves lead by increasingly mentally unstable Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) having taken control of the Lonely Mountain and all the treasure that is in it. However, they also woke up the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the process who is now destroying nearby Laketown. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) however successfully escapes from imprisonment and using a metal arrow manages to slay Smaug. This results in him becoming leader of the town.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meanwhile is rescued from the clutches of the Necromancer by old allies including Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Kate Blanchett) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Gandalf tries to make his way back to Bilbo and the others, but war is about to occur.

Thorin becomes increasingly obsessed with regaining the treasured Arkenstone, unaware that Bilbo has already found it and does not want to hand it over less it make him even more insane. Bilbo therefore slips out, meets Gandalf and gives him the Arkenstone as a bargaining tool. Elves from Mirkwood lead by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the men of Laketown demand that Thorin should give them part of the treasure that they own him and for additional aid. Even with the Arkenstone Thorin refuses. Things finally fall into place when a dwarf army lead by Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly) arrive, only for another two armies of orcs also to attack. Thus the Battle of the Five Armies commences…

Much of what can be said about this movie has already been said about the other five Middle-Earth films made by Jackson. The acting is brilliant, what is depicted is thrilling, and the effects are top-notch. One personal highlight is a duel between Thorin and the head of the orc army Azog (Manu Bennett).

There are some questions about the faithfulness of the adaptation, like some characters appearing in events that they do not appear, and some characters that were invented just for the film (see Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly), but no adaptation is going to please everyone.

The main factor of this film however is that at last both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings now finally been completed. The entire story has been told on screen. In terms of screen adaptations of literature, this is one of the key landmarks. As a Tolkien fan, my reaction is mixed. While it is great to see this remarkable epic tale being told, there is also that acknowledgement that this is the end. It is unlikely that Jackson or anyone else will come and adapt any other titles make by Tolkien such as The Silmarillion, which tells the story Middle-Earth’s creation and early history.

The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film, but overall the feeling you get is sadness at knowing that this is the end.

The Man Who Saved the World

April 23, 2015 by  
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Nuclear disarmament is a hot topic right now. Although Peter Anthony’s new docufiction film, The Man Who Saved the World won’t be released in UK cinemas until after the election, the timing is still very relevant for British politics. Managing to combine the solemnness of the subject matter with an at times playful and very human approach, Anthony has created a powerful, provocative and emotive exposition into the politics of the Cold War era, and the ongoing threat of nuclear catastrophe.

Stanislav Petrov, for a brief moment in 1983, held the fate of the world in the palm of his hand.  In present day Russia, Petrov is an irritable, drunken old man living a solitary existence in an ironically post-apocalyptic looking Moscow estate. As we follow Petrov on his first journey to the US—which includes an honouring at the United Nations and meeting figures such as Matt Damon, Robert De Niro and Kevin Costner—we begin to get an idea of the debt the world owes him. Flashbacks recreate the fateful night in 1983 when everything went wrong. Petrov was the senior officer on duty at Serpukhov-15, the command centre for the Soviet Air Defence’s nuclear warning system when an incoming US missile was detected—and then another, and another. With five incoming missiles ultimately detected and confirmed and sirens piercing through the station, all of the officers looked in terror to Petrov; the ultimate decision of whether to retaliate before it was too late fell squarely on his shoulders. Protocol told him to strike back, but his heart told him to give the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately the film shows us how one man, during the peak of international tensions, used his humanity and compassion and saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

A biblical quote at the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the film; “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” (Mark 8:36, King James Bible). Through the lens of the tensions between the two superpowers, The Man Who Saved the World examines the fundamental issues of political and diplomatic relations, power versus love and liberty and the poisonous influence of hate upon our shared humanity. The intertwining of Petrov’s personal life—his relationship with his cancer-stricken wife in the 1980s, his estrangement from his mother and dissatisfaction with the world—against the political backdrop emphasises the individual people that make up any nation, and the respect of human life of every nationality that should underpin all international relations. Petrov consistently and insistently rejects the praise that is rained upon him, telling the UN that he is not a hero, but a regular person who happened to be “at the right place at the right time”. The burden is too big for Petrov to bear, for, the message reads, choosing not to press a button and killing hundreds of millions of people should not be something we treat as a heroic act, but rather treat it as motivation towards the only heroic act available to us—that of nuclear disarmament.

The overwhelming message of The Man Who Saved the World is that the threat is ongoing; as long as both sides keep their nuclear arsenals, Petrov argues, we will never be far from nuclear war, and its only a matter of time until a city like New York has a bomb dropped on it. One of the most striking events in Petrov’s travels across America is a guarded tour of a defunct cold-war era missile silo. Despite demonstrating some strange appreciation and awe for the aesthetics—“it looks like a beautiful woman with a tight waist”—and power of the thing, Petrov quickly becomes enraged by the uninhibited enthusiasm the guide clearly has for nuclear weapons, and his insistence that they were designed to be used only in retaliation. As Petrov angrily points out, the other side thought that too—its time to forget the past, and for both sides to stop seeing the ‘other’ as the enemy.

Here we do run into a bit of trouble though, for Anthony at times relies heavily on imagery of the Middle Eastern conflict and 9/11 for emotional impact, labouring the point of ‘what would happen if the weapons fall into the wrong hands’—ignoring the destabilising impact the US and Russia had in these areas. The semantic implication is the demonisation of another group of people, which uncomfortably jars with the overall message of peace. At one point, Petrov bonds with some gun toting Americans at a shooting range by hitting his target—a cut out of Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps the Russians are not the enemy anymore, but Anthony is ultimately doing no one any favours by simply switching one bogeyman for another.

The Man Who Saved the World will be in UK cinemas on the 15th May.

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