Saturday, 30 January 2010
song of the week: "Rocket" by "Goldfrapp"
thing that makes me smile today: Less than 2 weeks until the end of exams.
pic of the day:
Friday, 29 January 2010
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Written by Alan Bennett
Starring Richard Griffiths
Theatre Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre
"Witty and layered" describes Alan Bennett's latest work. A play within a play, essentially, observing a rehearsal of a play called "Caliban's Day", inspired by W.H. Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror", The Habit of Art deals with sex, creativity and the nature of perception, providing much food for thought for the audience.
This play within a play is set in the disturbingly messy and waste-filled flat of Auden, widely thought of as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and tells a story that focuses largely on the power of the creative driving force that possesses artists, while juxtaposing this with the vile mess and sexual perversions of Auden himself, a seeming acknowledgement of one of Auden's lines within the play that "a lot of what is passed off as biography is idle curiosity."
These issues are explored largely through two scenes, one an interview between Auden and his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, and another a meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten. This is bookended by the witty observations and interactions of the "production staff" and the "author", offering a clearer insight into the process of creativity as alluded to in the play within a play.
It all works because the production is seamlessly brought together by the director Nicholas Hytner, and because of Richard Griffiths, who is fantastic as always and adds an energy to the proceedings, like a big dynamo. But while I focus on him, it is worth noting that the acting was pretty excellent across the board.
That being said, it's a thought provoking and enjoyable play, without ever verging on the mantle of the 'truly great'. It's fine at what it does, but there is nothing about this play that years from now I will look back on.
Ultimately though, this is one of the better plays on at the moment, and well worth the price of entry. Go check it out while it's still on.
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Without a doubt the biggest blockbuster exhibition in London for the next few months is going to be The Real Van Gogh at the Royal Academy of arts. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a pre-opening viewing with press and education staff, complete with background lecture and free wine, and I can tell you right now, you're going to want to see this
Some art exhibitions attempt to shock its patrons with edgy installations, others seek the familiar. Then there's this one, which takes an iconic figure like Van Gogh and digs through the legend so that we can appreciate the real human being behind the art.
So much of what we know about this man is caricature; the "troubled genius" with issues who cut off his own ear, and produced wild swirling paintings, a reflection of the confusion and turmoil within. This is the legend, but with this exhibition we learn the method behind the madness.
The exhibition tells the full story of Van Gogh's career, from his early beginnings living in the Hague, to his time in Paris, Arles and committing himself to hospital in Saint-Rémy.
But it's not just about the paintings, many of which are exquisite, even more so in person than I realised. We also get to see his letters, correspondence between Van Gogh and his younger brother Theo, who sent moral and financial support. These letters give us detailed insight into the thinking behind Van Gogh's work, and the meticulous and thoughtful process with which he perfected his art. It offers a wonderful new perspective on this man and the considerable talent at his disposal.
These letters are often accompanied by intricately detailed drawings of Van Gogh's paintings, some more detailed than the painting itself. One can see the full depth of Van Gogh's vision, as well as the development of his technique and skill over the years.
While many of his most famous works can not be seen in this exhibition (the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has the rights to those), this is is still a must for any fan of Van Gogh, or of art in general, providing an unrivalled, detailed insight into the man, the method, and the genius.
Thursday, 21 January 2010
It doesn't seem like too long ago that Obama won an historic election that symbolised a triumph of people power over the the ignorance and fear tactics that characterised the last administration, unanimously derided as one of the all time worst, even by Republicans. There was a lot of hope for a new beginning for America, and amongst many including myself, hope that the Republican party would take this as a sign that a major shift in party ideology was required to get back into power.
But 2009 was a long year, one which appears to be the starting point for a whole new era in politics. Now we look back at it and analyse the significant talking points.
In today's climate of media sensationalism and partisan "opinion journalism" it is hard for the public to get a fair and balanced view of politics, and that goes for people on both sides of the aisle. If you look at the New York Times, or Daily KOS, you'll see reports of how Obama is the best thing to ever happen to this country, and the best modern President of all time. If you look at Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, you'll see him labeled a dangerous failure and a terrorist who is bankrupting the nation. Frankly both points of view are equally asinine. In fact, many of the mainstream networks, amidst a process of dumbing down in order to compete for the lowest common denominator viewers, have been conducting first year reviews with all the histrionic insight that befits the whores of the entertainment news industry.
That being said, more measured analysis of what, for better or for worse, is sure to be a defining year for the new decade in politics can be found from more legitimate and intellectual sources of opinion such as the Financial Times, the Economist, the Week and of course the non-partisan CQ Politics.
Here we will attempt to give our own level headed, unbiased and ultimately fact based interpretation of the year.
I will begin by getting my conclusion out of the way, and then tell you why I have come to that conclusion. Overall I think it's hard not to concede that Barack Obama has made a decent start to his first term, relatively speaking, but he is still nowhere near achieving all the promise that was expected of him.
First the legislation. Obama got off to a quick start by lifting the ban on stem cell research funding, a massive boost for scientific progress, not just in America but all over the world. He followed this up with the Fair Pay Act of 2009, a massive success for social policy which amends the civil rights act with a mandate for non discriminatory pay in the work place.
The big one, of course, is the stimulus. It has proven to be fairly controversial, mainly among people who don't know what's in it, but this is a fantastic piece of legislation. What makes it such a success is that it is so wide reaching, with investments in green technology and education, to transport and jobs, and of course, lots and lots of tax cuts for 98.6% of Americans. This wide ranging nature means that even if Obama is unable to get any more of his ambitious agenda out before 2012, the benefits of this one bill will likely be enough to get reelected, assuming it works as projected by the non partisan CBO.
Without a doubt though, the economy is the measure by which Obama will be judged. Right now the markets have recovered, but jobs have only stabilised. Economists agree though that indicators are good and the recovery is coming along nicely, certainly on a similar timescale compared to recessions during the Reagan and Clinton Presidency. Most agree that had the stimulus not been passed we would be in a far worse state now, likely a full on depression.
Of course the one big piece of Obama's domestic agenda which has not yet come to fruition is the big health care debate. More on that in a minute.
Obama took over in the White House and almost immediately attempted to bring a new approach to Washington. He rejected the past decade's American policy of arrogance and international defiance that has seen us become an unpopular pariah of the international community, and restored diplomacy to it's rightful place.
In retrospect, his first year is full of success in foreign policy, ironically one of his areas of lowest voter confidence during the campaign, and now one of his strongest approvals. The victories started early with Obama convincing Russia to back down from their proposed missile deployments in Kaliningrad, and followed with a hugely successful goodwill tour of the Middle East. Throughout it all Obama has stepped up with fierce rhetoric pushing for nuclear disarmament and reaffirming America's support of the UN and International law, signing the order to close Guantanamo Bay and banning torture, which had been unfathomably legalised for the first time in a hundred years under the Bush administration.
And of course, there was the strangely considered approach with which Obama made his strategic decision in Afghanistan, including forming an exit strategy before committing troops. It is exactly this approach that was missing from the catastrophic military blunders of the Bush administration, and has earned the President rave reviews from both sides of the aisle.
The world responded with massive boosts in approval ratings, some almost doubling in the space of a few months, and a Nobel Peace prize soon followed.
But it wasn't just wounds overseas that he wanted to heal, there was as much division at home between the so called liberals and conservatives in America. Indeed many conservatives will groundlessly disagree with this, but at every step of every piece of legislation his party has worked on, Obama has offered the hand of bipartisanship to the Republicans, perhaps to a fault. As he famously put it in his inaugural address, "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist". That line has pretty much summed up his early approach to the Presidency.
Unfortunately this is also the biggest mistake of his Presidency so far. Obama chose to take an old fashioned centrist position as President, sitting on the fence while congress work to formulate the legislation for his agenda. Tax cuts, escalation in Afghanistan, extension of the Bush tax cuts and support of the Patriot act, all policy points that should please conservatives. Sadly that is not the country we live in anymore.
The Republicans have settled on a policy of pure obstruction as the best way to get elected back into power. It's a clever policy if you think about it, because if the country fails to improve under Obama, he will get blamed, not the Republican caucus. It's a sad state of politics where one political party would rather see the country fail for the sake of scoring political points than actually solve any problems, especially in a time of crisis as we are in now. But this is just the story of politics in America right now, it's a sport, not a mechanism of governing the country.
What makes it worse is the disappointment and shame this brings to America. After 2008 a lot of us felt as though America had finally learned from its mistakes, had finally stood up and rejected disingenuous politics of fear. But it is clear that that is no longer the case. "Tyranny!", "Socialism!", "Fascism!" The health care bill has been called all these things, with very little justification. But this underlines the next big failing of the Obama administration, he has lost control of the narrative.
So far I have been mostly praising his accomplishments, but it is also important to criticise where he has gone wrong. He has not succeeded in bringing the country together. He has not kept control of the all important narrative, and allowed Republicans to frame the debate on most issues this year, exactly as they want (although in fairness this is probably more the fault of the weak Democrats in congress, and the incessant noise of the right wing propaganda sources like Fox, WSJ, NY Post and Washington Times). He has compromised with the Republicans far too often, who simply don't want to negotiate with him, when he should really have flexed his congressional dominance, as Bush did many times, and pushed through his agenda by any means necessary. His faith in bringing partisans together was terribly naive, and it cost him large portions of his political capita. The worst part about him not dismissing bipartisanship is that the Republican noise machine is claiming that he has anyway in order to support their calls of 'tyranny!', with some success amazingly.
During the campaign people criticised Obama for not being experienced enough, and it is this lack of experience that is showing now. He needs to see this health care debacle as a wake up call and get tough with his congress. Back in the old days, if a congress couldn't come to an agreement, the President would force them into a senate session, and keep them locked in until they came up with a compromise. This is the kind of toughness and will that Obama needs to find if he is to salvage anything from a very difficult looking 2010.
But of course the big question is on health care reform. The health care bill is a big accomplishment, if they can pass it, but it is by no means perfect. Many controversial measures which are included could easily have been made state-optional amendments, and numerous progressive wishes have been ignored in the formation of the final bill. The result is a bill that would do a lot of good if passed, but is sadly unpopular, unwieldly, full of compromises and unscrupulous deals put forward by desperate Democrats, and mishandled at every step of the process by the hilariously inept Senate majority.
Indeed in most issues Obama's major handicap has been the weakness of the Democratic party. Nancy Pelosi is a dolt, but efficient at what she does. Freshmen like Al Franken and Alan Grayson bode well for the future of the party. Other than that, they're all completely useless. Bush never had this kind of majority and his congress still pushed through partisan agenda. It's gotten to the point where there I am seriously doubting about voting Democrat in 2010. If they can't get work done, then why should I? They're just lucky I have even less affection for Republicans right now, probably true of a lot of Americans. It's a battle between ineffectual wusses on one side and irresponsible lunatics on the other.
The election of Scott Brown as Massachusetts senator is a big setback for the health reform bill, but probably not fatal. There are numerous avenues still available to push it through if they want, and indeed Brown has indicated that he is open to passing a bill, as long as it's a better bill.
People who know me know that I am not at all a partisan guy, but rather am very moderate. I never had any qualms with the GOP until the disastrous Bush administration, a dislike that has grown following their shameful obstructionism since the election of Obama. But I like Scott Brown. I wouldn't have voted for him because of his health care position, but I can see him as future Presidential material. More immediately than that though, I have been impressed by his rhetoric since winning the election. Today he attacked his own party for their shameful obstructionist agenda and pledged to get a better healthcare bill passed for Americans.
Yes, Brown is the key. Without his support, or the support of another liberal Republican like Olympia Snowe, Obama will have a very hard time passing any legislation this year. 2010 will be a bad bad year for Obama unless something changes soon.
This could all be bull, but considering Brown needs to be reelected by a liberal state in just 3 years, I doubt he'll be breaking a major promise like that. If Brown does prove to be a man of his word, this election could actually be a BIG win for Obama, who will benefit much more from passing a popular, bipartisan bill then the one he was on the verge of passing. Brown is claiming that he is an independently minded Republican who wants to push forward with positive legislation. If he comes good on this promise then he could be a very powerful ally for Obama, and the key to passing reform. I'm not ready to give him my trust just yet, but if he sticks to his word then l will happily be the first to apologise for my doubt, and give him my approval.
More crucially, this election is likely to be used as the template for future Republican success. Brown won by campaigning as a centrist Republican. If this is the direction the Republican party is moving in, at the expense of the religious hard right that has been such a destructive influence on the country, then it's a great victory for America and for progressives. People a year ago were predicting the demise of the Republican party, if this election is any indication, they may well have been right; the religious extremist Republican party of the 2000s is disappearing, get ready for the more centrist Republicans of the 2010s, a party that might even be worthy of a vote if they can truly reform themselves. Fingers crossed anyway.
So the verdict is, a good start with plenty of room for improvement. He is receiving a media firestorm of bad press at the moment, but the reality is that his approval is pretty normal for a President in his position, comparable to the likes of Clinton and Reagan, both excellent two-term Presidents. His legislative success rate meanwhile, is the best ever at 96.1%, beating the previous record set by LBJ in the 60s. You can't really have asked for much more from a first year President, and indeed few have matched it, but you can't rightly call him a success yet. When unemployment starts to go down, when the budget is balanced, when America gets much needed health reform (which right now I'd say there is a 80% chance of happening if Brown really does want to do his job, 55% if he doesn't), then we can confidently declare him to be a successful President. For now though it's just a decent start, marred by a few stutters and naivete that characterises an inexperienced politician.
Saturday, 16 January 2010
Wednesday, 13 January 2010
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, Walter Kirn (novel)
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Release date(s) Out Now
Running time 109 minutes
Up in the Air is the latest film from Juno director Jason Reitman, and has been receiving some serious oscar tips in recent weeks. Can this inexperienced, but promising director finally deliver an oscar winning performance from George Clooney?
I liked Juno, I thought it was an excellent film in many ways. At the time most of the kudos went to Cody for her screenplay, more because of the interesting story behind her career than anything else, but for me it was Reitman's quirky visual style that made that film truly memorable. So I was pretty excited about seeing his latest effort.
Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate assassin whose job consists of flying all over the country to lay off employees. It's a story that's very relevant for our times, characterising both our economic fragility and delving into the world of aviary commuters, jet setting all over and ultimately spending only a few days at home each year. It's a no strings attached kind of lifestyle that suits Bingham, or so he thinks.
We follow the man in his travels and sit in on the frankly crushing, life ruining nature of his work that has become so familiar for many in the past two years. But what is really remarkable is how sympathetic the observer feels towards Clooney's character, and credit must go first to his nuanced performance, probably the best of his career. Bingham is essentially a good man, trapped in a morally questionable and arguably broken profession; it is a joy to watch Clooney balance all these factors and come to terms with the situation.
Credit must also go to Reitman's screenplay, which is razor sharp in wit, and more importantly, very poignant and well thought out. His direction is also in keeping with the high standards he has set so far in his short career, and Reitman seems to grow in maturity and confidence with each film he does.
The supporting performances are also strong, particularly Anna Kendrick's Natalie Keener, a naive young newcomer to Bingham's profession who acts as the perfect foil for his human qualities.
In the end, I would say that the oscar tips are well earned with this, possibly the best film of the past year and certainly one of the strongest leading performances. I strongly expect this to get a few nominations when February rolls around, make sure to check it out and see what all the fuss is about.
Clooney's best yet
Smart and relevant screenplay
Might be a bit slow for some
Possibly too close to home for some
Tuesday, 12 January 2010
Well that was a great lecture, David Nutt is every bit as interesting as you'd think from the stories in the news. He pulls no punches when it comes to talking about policy and the Government, including his personal definition of a "drug": something that politicians use and then wish they hadn't.
His lecture talked at great length about why prohibition of drugs does not work and how flawed the current drugs classification system is.
Unfortunately he only did the first half of the lecture, after which he snuck out, so I didn't get much time to ask him questions, but we did have the following exchange:
Q: If your position is that certain illicit drugs, for example cannabis, should share the same legal status as alcohol and tobacco, is this something you see realistically happening in the future?
A: Well I think I would go in the opposite direction. I've always been a strong advocate that prohibition is not effective, and just adds to the problem. Clearly there is no such thing as a completely harmless drug. Alcohol abuse is a big health issue in our society and I would not suggest that they ever market cannabis like they market alcohol, this would only have a detrimental effect on health. I think ultimately it comes down to the Government giving a proportionate response, which our study shows is not currently the case.
Q: What do you think needs to change before the Government will seriously look at this issue?
A: People. People need to stand up and let them know that they won't tolerate an unfair and punitive system.
Q: Do you look at a system like the one they've adopted in Amsterdam as an ideal model for controlling drug usage.
A: Well what they've done in Amsterdamn is very clever. They haven't made it fully legal, they've just decriminalised it, and not everywhere only in certain places. So now what you see are all these "coffee" shops all over the place... I think what people commonly don't realise is that there is no link between criminilization and usage, I think if you look at the statistics in the UK and Amsterdam Cannabis usage is very similar, or if anything even less.
Also worth mentioning that we had a mysterious newcomer sitting at the back of the lecture theatre who clearly was not a student. A journalist perhaps, or someone sent to keep an eye on what David Nutt said to us impressionable young medics.
Sunday, 10 January 2010
Author Aravind Adiga
Publisher HarperCollins India
Release Date Out Now
The White Tiger won the 2008 Booker prize, at a time when interest in all things India had really come to a boil, both through the shifting balance of power in world economies, and in the popular media with films like Slumdog Millionaire. Reading this now in hindsight however, one has to wonder if there's really anything more to this success and hype of this book than the good timing of its publication.
This book tells the story of Balram Halwai, a young street urchin from India who rises up to become a "success". This is told to the reader, peculiarly, through a series of letters Balram is writing to the Premier of China on the subject of entrepreneurship.
Now, at first I found this book pretty interesting. There were many intriguing themes relevant to current events and the changing world, tackled with a fresh perspective. Adiga presents the ascent of India and China in the world economy, relative to the decline in western nations, but goes on to expose the underlying corruption and inequalities that still mar these countries. All of this is presented with some wit and clever observations.
When this book came out, people hailed this fresh take as "an insider's exposé" on an up and coming nation, from a real Indian giving us his real insight and wisdom. But this is VERY a dishonest and misleading tact towards marketing a book. The author Aravind Adiga was indeed born in India, but in wealthy surroundings, and emigrated when he was just a little lad, and has lived in developed nations Australia and America ever since. He's as much an outsider as us really, and suddenly all his "brilliant" insights and observations suddenly seem a lot more superficial and unresearched, which is exactly what they are.
The bigger worry, however, is the book's failings as a novel. That short paragraph I gave you a moment ago about the themes in this book, that's pretty much it. The author seeks to challenge our perceptions of India by presenting to us a series of unsettling and off-putting situations, and that is pretty much all he does.
The author doesn't really delve any deeper into these themes, or develop his ideas. Any decently educated reader will have got the gist after about 100 pages, and yet he continues for another 200, basically flogging the reader around the head with the same point over and over again, almost like it's for shock value rather than any actual reason.
And the thing is, I could accept this, I would be fine with this superficiality, if it told a decently engaging story, but it doesn't. The plot is short and padded out, and the characterisation is pretty much non-existent; indeed most of the characters are one dimensional tools which serve merely as a vehicle with which to convey the author's political message. And of course, that would be fine also if he had more than just the one interesting, but superficial idea to keep throwing at the reader in an unsubtle manner. But he doesn't, and so you see my issue here. This is a book in which the author has made a decision to leave the story and character in the background in order to make a sociopolitical statement, which is itself lacking.
Now this is not a terrible book. The author has decent writing technique, it is at times amusing and witty, and it has at least one interesting, if undeveloped, thought behind it. The problem is that this is a book which clearly thinks it is a lot better, a lot deeper and more meaningful, than it actually is.
Saturday, 9 January 2010
song of the week: "Luv Goon" by "Pearl Harbour"
thing that makes me grimace today: Recent healthcare developments provide proof that liberal minded Americans can be as moronic as conservative ones.
pic of the day:
Girls revealing their bra size on Facebook
Girls revealing their bra colour on Facebook
Empire of the Sun
Thursday, 7 January 2010
Producer Ewan Pearson
Release Date January 11th
The year has only just begun, and already we have our first big release. Acolyte, the debut album from Manchester Indie band Delphic has been the focus of some really quite intense hype in recent months, with some pundits tipping it to be the first great album of 2010.
Needless to say there are a lot of people looking forward to the album's release next week, but you don't have to wait that long to find out if this album will live up to expectations. Read on for the full advance review from the Ephemeric.
The album gets off to a decent start with the moody and forboding Clarion Call, and right from the off it's clear that this is not just some average, timid debut offering, but more on that later.
The album continues it's good start with the obvious first single, Doubt. This is an electro-pop gem that is far too catchy not to be a success, channelling the likes of New Order during their pomp. It's all decent stuff so far, but by this point it's easy to dismiss this band as just another on the electro-indie bandwagon that has become the norm in recent years.
However, the third track on the album, This Momentary, goes off in a different direction, taking the mood down a notch to something softer and more melodic. It's a crucial turning point in the album, showing that this is a band capable of producing deeper material in addition to surefire hits like Doubt.
The album continues on from this in a similar fashion with Red Lights, one of the strongest tracks on the album. Mixing a smooth, radio friendly chorus with a dreamy electronic melody, I can see this one becoming a favorite amongst remixers in the coming year.
Next we reach the climax of the album with the 9 minute title track, Acolyte. This track is fully instrumental, and fully epic, reminiscent of some classic trance from the 90s.
The rest of the album is a little more forgettable, but maintains a decent quality throughout. In particular tracks Halcyon and Remain warrant a listen.
Overall, this is a good debut from a band that clearly likes to mix things up and give some musical variety to their albums. That being said, I can't say there is any song from this album that's really particularly amazing, merely good. We'll have to wait and see if they can build on this, but so far so good.
Red Lights (Link Broken)