james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

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Let me preface this by saying that I am a great fan of Secret Cinema and what they do. Secret Cinema presents: Casino Royale marks the fourth of their events that I have attended, the others being Back to the Future, Dirty Dancing, and 28 Days Later.

I love Casino Royale. I think it's a great movie and arguably the best of the James Bond franchise. There was an awful lot of potential here for an immersive experience and for the chance for people to live out those secret agent fantasies that we have all had. And while I certainly had a great time with Casino Royale, I have to say it was easily the weakest of the four.

Secret Cinema's latest offering has an awful lot going for it. After purchasing tickets, the company sends you details to help set up a secret identity and mission for the evening. You select an alias, are assigned a job, and have the option of purchasing costume and prop items. The latter, obviously, Secret Cinema's way of monetizing the event as much as possible, but nevertheless the quality of the items we ordered was actually not too bad. You are given a contact to seek out at the venue, and told to bring business cards to cement your fictional identity.

A similarly pleasing effort has also been put into the crafting of the immersive environment itself, a Dagenham warehouse impressively converted to recreate four different countries which form the setting of the film. Upon arrival, you are given some fake casino money, told to seek out a particular item or individual, which involves traveling to the various locations and chatting to the various actors and other attendees in order to gain the information you require. Spy stuff, basically, and it's undoubtedly entertaining.

There are a few reasons why it doesn't all work as well as it should, and the main one is timing. Casino Royale has a fairly muscular two and a half hour running time, which means that the showing needs to start that much earlier. On top of this, the entire evening begins with an unnecessarily long introduction, which for some reason they can only provide to a small group of attendees at a time. As a result, entrance is gained very slowly and in batches. We arrived right at the scheduled time, and it still took us over an hour to get into the event. By the time we were through the gates, there was probably less than an hour left to explore this massive warehouse before the film screening began. It's barely enough time to complete your mission, and certainly not enough time to both complete your mission and explore the other areas. As it happened, we never had the time to even set foot in one of the four countries. I advise attendees to choose between doing the mission or exploring, you won't have time for both.

In hindsight, it's probably just as well that there is so little time before the screening, because there actually isn't all that much to do in this immersive world. Back to the Future had an entire town full of shops, fairgrounds, a school dance and other activities. Dirty Dancing had dance classes, mini-golf, arts and crafts, etc. Even 28 Days Later, another indoors Secret Cinema, had a base camp bustling with games and activities. Casino Royale, by contrast, feels strangely devoid of anything to do other than the brief assignment you are given.

And unfortunately this is not the only example of the presentation being little more than skin deep. The assignment itself is fun, but ultimately pointless, with no consequence or reward for completion. Those business cards you brought? Pointless, they just pick an actor's card for the introduction (seriously don't go out of your way to order/print anything special). That casino money? Sure it can be used at the cards tables of the casino, but there are only two tables in a room containing more than a thousand people. Unless you head straight there and spend your hour queuing up, you won't get a chance to play.

The main problem is a familiar one for Secret Cinema: too many people crammed into too spare an environment, all in the name of a desperate attempt to recoup the expenses of their increasingly extravagant projects. I mean really all the money they spent to recreate four countries' worth of settings, in which the audience ultimately spends no more than a few minutes at most, has to be one of the most absurdly indulgent wastes of money in the history of the concept. The other problem is something new for the company: paucity of ideas. And that's more worrying.

Secret Cinema's attempt at James Bond provides a fun, albeit all too brief, opportunity to live out your secret agent fantasies. The film itself is still as strong as ever, but the whole product sadly falls short of what we know the immersive entertainment industry can provide.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Created by Russell T. Davies
Network BBC
Starring Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T'Nia Miller, Jessica Hynes
Genre Drama
Running Time 55-60 minutes

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If there is one silver lining to living through turbulent and disturbing times, it is the remarkable creative output that such troubles can inspire. Years and Years serves as a timely example of this.

Russell T. Davies is cultivating something of a reputation at the BBC, credited by many for his revitalization of Dr. Who, and more recently with last year's excellent A Very English Scandal. The latter ultimately garnered a slew of awards, not least of all a Debbie on this very blog. His latest project could well see him become the first writer to win back to back Debbies, and if so it would be well earned.

The premise behind Years and Years is disarmingly droll, following the Manchester-based Lyons family over a period of fifteen years, documenting their relationships, their career tribulations, and financial troubles. But the real story of Years and Years is in its extrapolation of future events based on the trends we see today, and its stark depiction of how those events impact on the lives of not only the Lyons, but the entire country.

Far from a ripple in the calm seas of the late 20th Century, Davies sees the current climate of instability as only the beginning of a much grander process. He maps out a world of glorious chaos which starts with a Donald Trump re-election in 2020 and the continued rise of fear-mongering populism in the UK. Without spoiling too much, each mini-shockwave gradually snowballs into military conflict and financial crisis, and much more beyond.

The brilliance in this series is twofold. First is in its darkly comic tone, with a combination of great writing and audacious production creating a sense of almost breathless panic as one event leads to another with seemingly no respite (in one instance in the final episode, to highly amusing effect).

The second is in how believable everything is (in the first few episodes at least), and in particular in showing the very real ways in which national and global events can impact real people on a personal level. It makes for watching that is, in the first four episodes in particular, often terrifying and extraordinarily evocative. Above all, Davies manages depict the impact of current events in a way that never seems overly ideological or stilted, and thus holds an impressive ability to reach a wide audience on these important topics without alienating driving a deeper divide.

One also has to give a shout out to the sheer quality of production from the visuals to the sound and music. The performances are as impressive as we have come to expect from a prestige BBC project, particularly Emma Thompson's terrifying Farage-esque politician, a performance that will surely earn a BAFTA nomination.

It's not a perfect series, as becomes apparent. The last few episodes take a surprising (albeit still hugely entertaining) turn into what can only be described as Dr. Whovian sci-fi thriller territory, and wraps up proceedings with a somewhat unearned ending that feels strangely at odds with the tone of the rest of the episodes. This can't help but feel something of a let down for a series whose (devastatingly effective) initial hook is in its adherence to grounded reality.

There are also times where it feels, such is the pace of the series, that some important topics are only lightly touched on. There are brief references to antibiotic resistance and deep fakes, likely major issues of tomorrow, which are only really discussed in the most superficial of terms. Similarly, while Years and Years does hint at the larger picture of the forces behind this seeming cascade of crises, it declines to give this anything beyond the most token of acknowledgement.

But for any flaws it has, Years and Years never ceases to be anything other than hugely entertaining. When its at its best, it ranks among the most incisive and remarkable commentaries of the day. This is lingering stuff that will stick with you after viewing, and its rough edges only serve to highlight the raw power of its vision. An essential series if ever there was one.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Produced by Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughan
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
Studio Rocket Pictures
Running time 121 minutes

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I was sceptical about seeing Rocketman. The new Elton John biopic came to within a whisker of making it onto this year’s Hot List, but ultimately I was put off by the feeling that there was something a bit cheap and opportunistic about the whole thing. I was naturally sceptical of another studio putting out a rock and roll biopic so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody’s award winning run, even more so with the unusual decision to depict a biographical film in the form of a jukebox musical, one which shoe-horns existing songs into a context for which they weren’t written. Fortunately this is one of those situations where I am glad to admit that I was wrong.

Rocketman does not officially release in cinemas until later on this week, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a preview screening, and I have to say it was one of the more enjoyable cinema excursions in recent times. 

I have already mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody once in this post. Given the similar subject matter and proximity of release it is perhaps only natural that people will make the comparison. Still, I don’t like to review things by comparison, so I will discuss it only once more, and very briefly. Rocketman is a considerably better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody. From the filmmaking, to the writing, to the acting, just about every element of Rocketman on another level to Bohemian Rhapsody, so much so that to even compare the two in terms of film quality is a bit laughable. Still, it has to be remembered that despite its modest success on the awards’ circuits, Bohemian Rhapsody was given quite mediocre reviews by the critics, so I will go even further. Rocketman is not just a better film, it is a very good film indeed in its own right.

This is, of course, the biopic of Elton John. A latter-day John in rehab forms the framing device for the singer's life story, from his early childhood to first commercial success, and ultimately his self-destructive spiral and comeback. It's the classic rock-star's parable, uniquely told through some visually spectacular set-pieces and extravagant musical numbers.

And extravagant they are. There's no faulting this film for its sense of style. This is a visual treat from its flamboyant set design and abundant use of colour to its sumptuously indulgent camera shots. Things start off somewhat slowly and more in the mould of a traditional biopic, until the turbulent events of John's childhood smash all semblance of John's grounded reality and send him into the wild journey of his career. As John's mental health deteriorates, so too does each scene become increasingly surreal and chaotic, blurring into one another until even John can't tell where he is from one moment to the next.

Of course, it helps that the music is this good. Ordinarily I find it a bit tacky when a musical forces existing songs into its story, with lyrics that clearly weren't written for the script. Mamma Mia and David Bowie's Lazarus are prime examples of this that come to mind. But for some reason it didn't bother me here. Perhaps it is because the set-pieces are surreal and abstract enough that you don't try to take them as literal depictions of narrative, or perhaps the songwriting is such that it simply better lends itself to different contexts. Whatever the reason, it works a treat here, and several moments in this film even gave me goosebumps with just how brilliantly it was all choreographed.

But above all it is the electric performance of Taron Egerton that steals the show. Egerton throws everything of himself into this role, capturing the soul and energy of his subject right down to a tee without ever resorting to impersonation. It helps that Egerton turns out to be a fantastic singer, more than doing justice to these classic tunes. Egerton is hardly a new face in the industry, but this nevertheless feels like a career making performance, one that will surely see him launched into the awards circuit and those upper echelons of stardom.

It is much to this film's credit that it does not shy away from the dark elements of John's life. Unlike other musical biopics, this is not a sanitised depiction of his life. The full gamut of John's narcotic use, psychological issues, and sexual extravagances are on full display, and the result is a story that is disarmingly honest and personal.

If there is one main criticism, it is that after spending two hours building up to John's complete breakdown, the whole mess gets resolved far too quickly. There is no depiction here of the struggle to recovery, of the misery of getting free of addiction. Falling to rock bottom was a journey, but getting back up again seems far too easy.

Similarly there are times where the psychological exploration of the film's troubled subject feels only little more than skin-deep. It is a torment that gets told primarily through decades old lyrics and figurative dance numbers more than actual analysis or discussion. Rocketman certainly doesn't shy away from the topic, but seems content to give viewers the headline and move on, rather than delving further into the detail, or more importantly, the struggle to overcome.

Ultimately these are minor criticisms that can be forgiven for the sake of artistic licence. While there are moments where you wish they would go further, Rocketman nevertheless manages to capture the bright highs and dark lows of being an artist better than most films, and does so in a way that is constantly exhilarating and ultimately hugely uplifting.

Rocketman makes for thrilling viewing. It is extravagant, outrageous and over the top, capable of beauty and brilliance, ugliness and folly. It is a mesmerising ride that never falls anything short of hugely entertaining, just like its subject.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric I'd like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades.

Manchester City champions 2019
It has been a nail-biter of an end to the season; not just in the Premier League's record breaking title race, but in the relegation and European qualification battles that last right up until the final curtain. It has been riveting stuff, and best of all since Manchester City won again, I don't even need to look for a new picture for this article!

Liverpool ultimately finished runner up with a frankly astonishing 97 points, a haul that would certainly have won the title in just about any other season. It is a testament to two highly accomplished sides, both of whom can look back on the season with a great deal of pride.

Meanwhile, a battle for Champions League qualification that featured Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United proved fascinating for quite different reasons. Each of those four teams has had an absolutely torrid end to the season, playing poorly with results to match. The fact that Chelsea, out of the running for much of the season and seemingly completely incapable of a win in the latter weeks, managed to eke out third place right at the death speaks more to the utterly shambolic form of their competitors than it does to their own performances. Time and time again Chelsea dropped points in a pathetic manner, only to be granted a reprieve by their equally dismal rivals, such that fans of the eventual victors and losers alike can only help but be embarrassed for each other.

Otherwise, it was a season of high drama, but relatively few shocks. Everton, West Ham and Leicester took their customary position in the top half of the table, yet entirely clear of European contention. Nouveau riche Wolves delivered a hugely impressive campaign as expected, whereas on the other hand noveau riche Fulham delivered a limp relegation-bound attempt at a season, as frankly few expected.

But someone had to go down, and this year that burden falls to Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield. Cardiff and Huddersfield will hardly have come as a surprise to anyone, but Fulham had been expected to make a decent go of it on the back of a £100 million pound spending spree, and there will rightly be an inquest as to what has gone wrong this season.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2019:

Winners: Manchester City- Winners by a hair, and still undoubtedly one of the world's top sides. Deserved champions.

Relegated: Cardiff City, Fulham, Huddersfield Town - Little was expected of lightweight Huddersfield or the shambolically run Cardiff City, but for Fulham to have even been in the relegation discussion after spending so much money will surely go down as one of the league's great flops.

Player of the Year: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) - While his team may look increasingly unimpressive, Hazard remains the league's standout talent and he proved as much again this season by leading the league in assists whilst also achieving a new personal best in goals. No single player has been directly involved in as many goals this season.

U-21 Player of the Year: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) - A second year in a row for Alexander-Arnold, undoubtedly one of the great young fullbacks in world football and a potential star of English football for years to come.

Best Goalkeeper: Ederson (Manchester City) - It has been a formidable season for the Manchester City shot-stopper, whose reliability between the posts has been a huge factor in the often narrow results that eked out the club's 1 point advantage over Liverpool.

Manager of the Year: Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) - A difficult choice between the top two, but whereas Pep inherited a largely title-capable side, few can discredit the singular impact that Klopp has had on transforming this Liverpool team into one of the world's best.

Top Scorer: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) (22 each) - Rare to share this award, even more rare to split it three ways. Last year's winner Salah may not have hit the astonishing heights of last season, but nevertheless ended up as one of the league's leaders alongside teammate Sadio Mane and Arsenal's much improved Aubameyang.

Most Assists: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) (15) - See above, arguably his best season yet in a blue shirt, despite the struggles of his club.

Overachievers: Wolves - It is true that many, including this blog, had predicted this heavily invested Wolves side to be something of a surprise package in this year's Premier League, but actually going and living up to that promise is another matter. For a newly promoted side to have such a strong debut season, ultimately finishing the best of the rest outside the top six, is an impressive achievement, regardless of how much has been invested.

Underachievers: Manchester United - Last year's Premier League runner up had been expected to number themselves among the frontrunners in this year's title challenge, but that's not how it turned out. For United to have not even qualified for the Champions League will have come as a bitter disappointment. One manager has already been sacked for it, and we may yet have a second face the chop before too long.

Best signing of the season: James Maddison (Leicester City) - Making the step up from Championship to Premier League is a big ask for any young player, few succeed. James Maddison has thrived and established himself as one of the league's brightest new faces.

Worst signing of the season: Fred (Manchester United) - Every season has a big money move that fails to live up to its billing, and this year that is Fred. A £52 million fee makes Fred the 4th most expensive signing in the club's history, and yet he has only managed 10 starts in the league. Fans will be hoping for more next season.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2019:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2019

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Amy Pascal
Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Hailee Steinfeld
Studio Lord Miller Production
Running time 117 minutes

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Spider-Man is one of geekdom's most iconic superheroes, and yet it was not until the early 2000s that it received a full cinematic effort, with the Saim Raimi trilogy. Since that time, the franchise has become something of an IP football to be fought over by both Sony and Marvel film studios, which has prevented the sort of long-term continuity that has become the norm for these big superhero franchises and result in a number of disjointed reboots and interpretations.

Needless to say, when Marvel finally managed to wrest the live-action rights from Sony once and for all, it was a big deal, and Spider-Man has now joined the multi-billion dollar pantheon of Marvel's Avengers franchise. Meanwhile, Sony have been quietly working away on Spider-Man products in other forms of media for which they retain the rights. Yet for all the hype of Tom Holland and Homecoming, it is Sony that might just have come up with the best Spider-Man film yet made.

I recognise that I am a bit late to the party with this one. After all, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did just win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and receive near unanimous critical acclaim. But despite all the high praise, I came into this one skeptical. This film was coming so soon after the critically and commercially successful new live-action adaptations. In addition, there is also a certain stigma attached to animated films that means they are usually taken less seriously than their live-action counterparts. So when I began to see all the claims of greatness: yes, I was skeptical. When it fend off both Disney and Disney Pixar to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, an award that has historically been so utterly dominated by Disney and Disney Pixar that it might as well be the Oscar for Best Disney Feature, I was intrigued.

There are a lot of qualities that make this such a special film. Most obviously, the production quality is extremely high. This is a visually striking film, with masterful use of sound and music. The all-star cast contains some great talent, from Shameik Moore and New Girl's Jake Johnson to Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. The supporting roles, too, are full of big names including Chris Pine, Oscar Isaac, Liev Schreiber and Nicolas Cage. So while this may be an animated spin-off of the larger franchise, it is clear that no effort has been spared in making this something of an event picture.

But the real key to this film's success is Lord and Miller's script. It is clever, surprising, and genuinely funny. It is full of loving references to past Spider-Man films, online memes, and the wider Spider-Verse of the comics. This is not just some light entertainment for the family either. The script knows when to take itself seriously; there are several moments of real pathos and a plot that proves surprisingly poignant.

Animated or not, this is just a good film. An engrossing and original story well told and presented through a highly accomplished production. This is a film that can be enjoyed by both newcomers and die-hard fans. This really is the best Spider-Man film yet made, and arguably one of the best films of 2018 in general. Easy to recommend.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Genre Indie Rock
Label ATO
Producers Nilüfer Yanya

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Nilüfer Yanya has been on this blog's radar for a while, initially previewed in our 2018 Hot List, and then again in this year's edition, not to mention a routine fixture in the pundits' hype machine of upcoming musical talent. Clearly then, there had been enough quality in the EPs and demo tracks to catch not only my attention, but the attention of much of the industry. An undoubted talent, but still probably few would have expected debut LP Miss Universe to show quite as much ambition as it does.

Beneath its deceptively relaxed musical aesthetics, Miss Universe hints at a rather more dystopian worldview, complete with amoral corporate infomercials, lyrics of helplessness and social anxiety. The result is an album that is surprisingly weighty yet with an introspective angle. The fact that it somewhat successfully manages to achieve this sophistication whilst still delivering some memorable tunes is a testament to the impressive songwriting here.

The album's second track In Your Head serves as a good example of what to expect. Musically it sounds for all the world an indie staple, but lyrically it's full of paranoia and self-doubt. These are songs that can be sparing and understated when they want to be, as with Paralysed, or soaring and anthemic as shown by probably the strongest song on the album, Angels. In her finest moments, Nilüfer Yanya's sound captures the raw energy of Amy Macdonald, the contemplative minimalism of Sampha, and the spiky lyricism of the Strokes or Pixies.

For this artist to show such mastery of her craft on the first attempt lays down a marker that she is not just another ephemeral pop starlet, but a truly original voice. This is by no means a perfect or groundbreaking album, but it is a bold and fascinating statement from an exciting new talent. We will watch her career with great interest.

Must Listen :
In Your Head

Saturday, 20 April 2019

It is another historic and deeply disturbing day in America. Two weeks ago I provided my analysis of Attorney General Bill Bar's summary of the long awaited Special Counsel report on the Trump Campaign's Russian connections and associated alleged criminality. Team Trump had tried to frame this event as a game-changer, "total exoneration", case closed. But in truth Barr's handling of the report did little to bring closure to the country, and with good reason. Today we can put much of that lingering ambiguity to rest, the actual Mueller Report has been released, albeit with some redactions.

Let's be clear, as there is a lot of misinformation out there. The Mueller Report is absolutely unequivocal: The Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

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The findings of the Mueller Report
"Oh My God... This Is the End of My Presidency. I'm Fucked" - President Donald J Trump upon learning that a Special Counsel had been appointed to investigate his campaign.

We have long speculated as to the form the Mueller Report would take, but the time for speculation is now over. The redacted report can be found online at https://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf, and it is damning. I encourage everybody to have a look and read it for themselves. Do not just take my word or anyone else's for granted. Read the facts and make your own judgement. The final document is divided into two volumes.

The first paints a picture of a campaign that is, frankly, lousy with Russian connections. Dozens of Trump associates taking hundreds of meetings and communications with members of the Russian Government. Personal, political and business connections. The report lays out evidence of a campaign that was in near constant communication with the Kremlin, which was the subject of numerous overtures with regards to conspiring to influence a Federal election, and which frequently held itself out as completely receptive to those overtures. Mueller concluded that there was insufficient evidence to make a criminal case for any of this activity, but caveated this conclusion with the clear assertion that the obstructive behaviour carried out by Trump's associates had a material impact on that fact. These obstructive actions were, of course, themselves crimes, and some 40 persons have been indicted with 200 criminal charges between them.

Let's not mince words, this is collusion. Mueller's findings reveal a vast web of co-ordination and quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The Trump campaign knew that Russia were helping them win the election, and in turn made numerous and frequent assertions to the Kremlin that they would implement favourable policies, particularly with regards to Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions. The bottom line is this: Donald Trump knew the Russians were attacking America and said nothing because he knew they were helping him. This may not be a crime, but it is certainly unethical and disqualifying for office.

And it goes beyond this. The "fake dossier", that alleged Trump was compromised by the Russians, that Trump and his fanatics have spent so long deriding is corroborated on a number of details here. The Mueller report reveals for the first time that the Russians threatened Trump with "compromising tapes". The Mueller report reveals that Manafort assured his fellow indictees that Trump would pardon them all if they stayed loyal. Senator Richard Burr is shown to have been leaking evidence from the Senate investigation to the White House. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders admitted to Mueller that she lied to the public on numerous occasions. Mueller confirms that Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort shared polling data with the Russian Government, and adjusted campaign strategy accordingly.

There are so... many... details like this. The story being told here is of far more than just collusion. It's a full accounting of a regime that is so fully compromised, so rotten to the core, so totally bereft of morals. All of this behaviour is wrong. It's all inappropriate, it's all unethical, and it's all blatantly unpatriotic. This is corruption at the very highest level, a revelation of just how murky the Trump swamp truly is. The trouble is that this collusion is not necessarily criminal, and where it may have been criminal ended up being too difficult to prove.

Let's also be clear about this. Many of the Trump campaign's interactions were explicitly identified as potentially criminal. Mueller's report methodically examines each instance and explains why criminal charges were or were not pursued. Many of these incidents only avoided prosecution by the skin of their teeth. The report explicitly states that a key reason for the lack of prosecution on collusion is due to obstructive efforts staged by Trump's various associates, many of which themselves led to prosecution.

But it's the second volume of this report that is the most damning. This is the volume which deals with whether or not the President committed criminal obstruction of justice. In this case Mueller declines to make a prosecutorial judgement (more later on why), but rather lays out the evidence in meticulous detail and defers the question for further consideration.

We already knew many of the key events from media reporting, but Mueller provides new details that suggest Trump really was behaving in nefarious ways - deciding to fire Comey but then asking Rosenstein to say he came up with the idea, and asking Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself specifically to end parts of the investigation. In other instances, Trump's obstructive efforts appear only to have failed because members of his team talked him out of it, or flat out refused to follow orders. Perhaps the single most striking part of the report is how directly and plainly Robert Mueller states that Trump intended to hamper the investigation.

There are a few other key points to note with respect to Mueller's obstruction findings:

  1. Mueller clearly and explicitly recommended the question be resolved by Congress, not the Department of Justice. On no fewer than four occasions Mueller stated in no uncertain terms that Congress has the authority over this matter;
  2. Mueller explicitly declined to make a conclusion due in large part to the the Department of Justice policy on not indicting a sitting President;
  3. Mueller explicitly states that the President may be indicted upon leaving office;
  4. Mueller was so comfortable that he had all the evidence needed for an obstruction charge that he declined to subpoena the President, as he felt it was not needed in order to prove mens rea;
  5. Mueller explicitly states that he believes a thorough FBI investigation would be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt criminal intent on the part of the President.
In Robert Mueller's own words: "If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgement."

The Trump Administration has spent the last several weeks spinning the lack of an obstruction indictment as an indication that the matter was inconclusive. But a reading of the actual findings show this clearly not to be true. Mueller makes abundantly clear that he chose not to make a prosecutorial judgement due to the unusual circumstances of the case, in particular the DOJ/OLC rules on indicting a sitting President. He also makes clear that there is a case to be heard, and that Congress, not the DOJ, has the authority to conclude that case. There is a real case to obstruction, and Mueller in effect has laid out a road-map to investigation and probably impeachment for Congress to follow.

Bill Barr can no longer credibly lead the DOJ
While the report his highly damning on the President and campaign, equally disturbing is what it reveals about the conduct of the Attorney General of the United States Bill Barr. While the Attorney General is a political appointee, it is historically a role that the holder seeks to perform apolitically for obvious reasons. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Mueller Report is the extent to which it makes clear that Barr has not been conducting himself in such a way.

If the country was skeptical of Barr's initial summary, it was downright alarmed by his behaviour since then. During his Congressional testimony he parroted the President's much derided conspiracy theories about being "spied" on (numerous courts have already ruled that investigators did nothing inappropriate) and blaming a conspiracy of media witch hunts and "illegal" leaks. It is impossible to interpret Barr's press conference on the day of the release of the report, in which he did little but regurgitate his previous summary and storm out under difficult questioning, as anything other than a political PR stunt. Such brazenly political conduct from the nation's top law enforcement official is unbecoming of his office, but following the release of the Mueller Report his behaviour appears even more insidious and disturbing.

There are a number of stark and material differences between Barr's summary and subsequent comments on the Mueller Report and the actual findings of that report. Most significantly, Barr claimed that Mueller's refusal to prosecute on obstruction was due to a lack of evidence, and not because of the rules regarding indictment of a sitting President. Mueller explicitly contradicts this, stating in no uncertain terms that a core reason for not making a prosecutorial judgement is the OLC policy. Barr also claimed that Mueller did not indicate any preference for Congress to take up the obstruction question. Even putting aside the patent absurdity that the Special Counsel, appointed specifically to allay concerns that the DOJ would not investigate itself objectively, would defer back to that very DOJ, Mueller makes clear on numerous occasions that Congress does have authority in this matter. Perhaps most significant is Barr's declaration that Mueller concluded that Trump would shielded from facing obstruction charges upon leaving office, something which is expressly refuted in the report.

Some of the discrepancies can be charitably described as misleading or partial descriptions, but other statements were flat out false, and provably so. Was Barr lying about the contents of the report? At a minimum it is clear that he sought to misrepresent Robert Mueller's findings, and when combined with his hagiographic press conference and constant use of propagandistic non-legal language it paints a very worrying image of a Justice Department that has been politicised far beyond anything this country has seen before.

More to the point, one of the reasons the Mueller Report looks so damning is because of how unfavourably it compares to Barr's summary. While it is undoubtedly bad, it arguably would not have seemed too catastrophic some two months ago against the pre-Barr summary expectations. Barr's clumsy attempts at spin instead served to lower expectations, and may ironically have made the actual report seem even worse than it might have done.

A vindication for the media
So the report looks pretty bad for just about everyone involved, but there are some clear winners, not least of all in the media.

For years we have heard this terrifying populist spiel about how the media are "fake news" and "the enemy of the people". Dangerous, dishonest rhetoric designed to poison the public against the legitimate and independent fourth estate so as to blunt its ability to shed light on corruption. Now that we have the Mueller Report, one of the most striking realisations is just how accurate a lot of the reporting has been.

The report has corroborated numerous incidents that the administration had dismissed as fake news, and really there were surprisingly few revelations that had not at least been discussed in the media. There is absolutely no doubt about it, this was a huge vindication for the media.

At the risk of sounding awfully self-serving, it is also something of a vindication for myself and this blog. Look again through my write-up of the Barr summary, and it's striking just how much of what I wrote has in fact been borne out in the actual fact of the Mueller Report. I know some people took exception with my analysis on the basis that it did not coincide with the messaging their chosen team was trying to put out, so hopefully this can serve as an important reminder to all of us to follow fact and evidence rather than trying to make something as fundamental as the rule of law into a partisan contest.

What happens next?
This is a historic moment in this country. There is so much in this report that is of significance.

Even aside from the headline findings, all the unexplained Russia connections, the fact that the President may have criminally obstructed justice. There is also the apparent confirmation that Russia attempted to manipulate the President by threatening him with compromising materials. It's been bizarrely overlooked in comparison to the potential criminality, but even the fact that the report has documented admission from the Trump administration that they just lie to the public continually. There is so much in this report that portrays this administration in a devastating light.

The report is also quite clear on what should happen next. Robert Mueller referred some 14 investigations to other teams in the Justice Department, and the vast majority of the Mueller Report's redactions appear to concern ongoing matters. The redactions appear to have predominantly been made to sections concerning Wikileaks and the election hacking portions of the report. In addition there are a number of notable absentees from the "why we declined to prosecute" section like Jerome Corsi, Carter Page plus others. You can make what you will of that, but it implies that a number of the concerned individuals may either be cooperating with or the target of ongoing investigations.

Most significantly, the report makes clear that Congress alone has the authority to continue and conclude on the question of obstruction of justice. As holders of the majority in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party now has a constitutional obligation to see this through. The Democrats should initiate hearings on obstruction of justice immediately and subpoena all necessary evidence. Depending on where that leads, they should then consider the question of impeachment. There is absolutely no ambiguity that this is what SHOULD happen, but the truth is it is very unlikely.

The reality is that Donald Trump is up for reelection next year. He has abysmal approval ratings and this report will not have done him any favours. The Democrats have zero political incentive to impeach him, rather they have every incentive to let him keep doing what he's doing, and use his unpopularity to drive another election victory in 2020. The Democrats are highly unlikely to impeach Trump unless something comes along that is so dramatic it is impossible to ignore.

I want to be clear on this. These are political considerations, and I do not support this approach. In my view the rule of law is paramount, and if Trump did commit a crime then Democrats are obligated to provide oversight and enforce those laws. If they fail to do so then I would consider that a damning indictment on the Democrats' ability to govern seriously. If Trump did commit a crime then he needs to be made an example of, if for no other reason than to show the country that we are a nation of law. Allowing him to finish his term and lose at the ballot box would be tantamount to normalising unacceptable conduct, and sets a terrible precedent that the law only applies selectively.

For everyone else that is reading the Mueller Report and this article, I think there is one key take away that I would stress above everything else. We now have the facts before us in print, there is no longer any ambiguity. It is time for all of us, Democrat, Republican, and myself included, to put aside the silly political gamesmanship and biases and face reality.

It is far past the time where anyone can credibly say with a straight face that this is all some kind of hoax or political stunt. It is far past time where anyone can claim that nothing happened and this is all just business as usual. This all really happened. This is a damning report, illustrating a web of widespread and ongoing misconduct in Government. And you know what? It's a Republican this time, but once one party gets away with it, the other party will just do the same. None of us should find this acceptable.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Directed by Lynette Linton
Written by Lynn Nottage
Starring Stuart McQuarrie, Martha Plimpton, Clare Perkins
Theatre Donmar

sweat donmar trump theatre 2019 pulitzer

This blog recently reviewed Shipwreck, and commented that it was a perfect example of how not to write political theatre. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sweat.

Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play forms a timely and nuanced account of life among America's "forgotten people", in impoverished rust-belt country. Based on a series of extensive interviews with real life factory workers, Sweat gives us a stunningly real insight at economic displacement, the loss of blue collar jobs, and a fear of immigration and trade.

The production is wonderfully brought to life by director Lynette Linton. The set is atmospheric and the performances without fault. McQuarrie and Plimpton are utterly spellbinding.

So why does Sweat work so well? Ultimately the answer is that the story comes first, and is not merely a vehicle for a political lecture. This is a story that would be worth telling in any age, gripping in and of itself. The political viewpoint is neither agenda driven nor laid on too thick, just purely insightful, and all the more powerful for its honesty.

The characters are well written and feel like real people. They don't talk like caricatures or condescending mouthpieces for the author. The story that you see here rings true, and even if it is not strictly based on actual events it undoubtedly gets to the core of a very real situation. While the play wisely never mentions Trump by name, this tale nevertheless makes for essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand his appeal, or the desperation which has motivated many to buy into his rhetoric. That this play was written in 2015 only serves to make its words more prescient. It's rare that a play finds me speechless at final curtain, and I really can't recall the last time theatre has left me with such an impression.

I saw this production at the Donmar this spring, but Sweat will now transfer to the Gielgud starting June. For anyone who has not yet seen it, I can not recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Anne Washburn
Starring Khalid Abdalla, Fisayo Akinade, Raquel Cassidy, Adam James
Theatre Almeida

shipwreck almeida trump anne washburn burns twilight zone rupert goold comey

Anne Washburn is proving to be somewhat hit or miss as a playwright, and sometimes both in the same play.

Washburn's playwriting style is essentially the anti-Stanislavski (the pioneer of naturalism), with stories that are not intended to be taken as a depiction of actual events, but an exploration of concepts, and characters that are not intended to represent real people, but act as mouthpieces for the various points of view she wishes to explore. It makes for theatre that can be as intellectually provocative to critics and drama students, as it is grating and stilted for regular patrons.

This was very much the case with a recent play of Washburn's, Mr Burns. The concept here was a post-apocalyptic world in which stories and bits of pop culture become valued commodities traded between communities. As a high level concept it's not bad, but the way in which Washburn wrote it was so grating; long, drawn out scenes of the most boring and repetitive dialogue, like that one friend of yours who always repeats the same joke from a TV show until it stops being funny. Her new play Shipwreck is written in much the same way.

Shipwreck ostensibly follows two separate narrative strands: one in which a group of friends make a retreat to a remote cabin, and become embroiled in the world's most tedious political discussions; the other a series of monologues which explore the struggles of an American midwestern couple raising a refugee child. The latter of these two strands is actually competently written and does lead somewhere satisfying in the end, however it composes probably no more than 10% of the production, with most of the rest being dedicated to the former.

Don't get me wrong, politics in 2016 is a topic that is ripe for source material, and many plays have attempted politics and pulled it off successfully. Shipwreck contrasts these efforts as a golden example of how not to do political theatre.

These scenes in the cabin invariably feature some (and I say this as someone vehemently anti-Trumpist) pompous jackass regaling everyone with the latest Trump outrage that they heard on the news ("Can you believe how much Trump lies?!", "Have you heard how he fired Comey?!"). There is no subtlety here, as with a play like Albion. It's literally just a group of stilted mouthpieces for the author repeating Rachel Maddow zingers, and ranting at the audience as if the author feels some need to edify the ignorant masses.

The main problem here is twofold: Firstly, there is no story or point to these scenes that justifies what we're watching. Most of us go to the theatre to see a story or some worthwhile artistic expression, not just some person's Twitter thread adapted to script. Secondly, the writer has nothing particularly insightful or interesting to say beyond simply "Trump is awful, why aren't you angry?!" (and again, I say this as a notably outspoken critic of his regime). The references in the dialogue are banal and superficial, and yet they are dissected at an excruciatingly glacial pace with all the smugness of someone who is under some misapprehension that they are privy to some great wisdom that they must impart to the rest of us.

The result is that anyone who is knowledgeable about politics will find  this all trite and laboured, and anyone who is not will find it condescending. If Washburn is legitimately trying to edify her audience, then she is nowhere near as clever or insightful as she thinks. If she is ironically trying to show how annoying people are when they talk politics, then well done, but either way it doesn't make good theatre.

The saving grace of Mr Burns was its final act, in which all the hitherto superficially explored themes were brought together in a dazzling and visually striking setpiece which saw a classic Simpsons skit reinterpreted as some horror thriller, complete with a Greek chorus, full band, and incorporating elements and details from all manner of different pop culture sources. It certainly didn't justify sitting through three hours of tedium, but it showed that Washburn is capable of some truly original, visionary work. Shipwreck pulls the same trick with two spectacular scenes, one at the end of each act and for which I have awarded this play one star each.

The first expands on one of the Trump lies that forms the focus of much of the first act, that he was some firebrand anti-war activist fighting tooth and nail against the Bush administration to prevent the Iraq war. What follows is a depiction of a dashing, young and idealistic Trump (reinterpreted as some Tony Stark-esque figure) whose power and popularity so threatens the establishment that then President Bush visits him in Trump tower and begs him to back down. A hilariously schlocky battle of wits ensues, resulting in a slow motion bare knuckle mano-a-mano for the soul of the country. It's well-staged, tightly written, and hilarious.

The second of these scenes imagines the now infamous meeting with James Comey in which Trump asked then FBI Director Comey to pledge personal loyalty to him. Here, Trump is reimagined as some mad Aztec God-Emperor, prancing about the stage in absurd looking robes and headdress, while he is flanked by ghoulish masked cultists who obey his every whim. It's an astonishing bit of theatre, and actually one of the better analogies I have yet seen for this administration.

And so we end with his paradox of a playwright. Someone who is clearly capable of breathtaking vision and finely honed writing, and who nevertheless pads her plays with 90% pure tedious dreck. I suspect that the answer is that this is a play intended more for critics and students to analyse than for anyone to actually go and enjoy. The best plays manage to be both.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Well it finally happened. The Office of the Special Counsel Robert S Mueller III has completed his investigation into alleged connections between the Russian government and the Presidential campaign of then candidate Donald Trump. To call this a seismic event would be an understatement. This is easily the most significant Federal investigation into a President's conduct since Watergate, and concerns charges that if proven would be unlike anything seen before in American politics.

Sadly, as with pretty much everything else that has happened under this administration, this story has been spun, obfuscated, and just generally muddied up to the point where practically no one can tell what is actually going on, least of all those in the media upon whom falls the responsibility of informing the public. So for those of you who are rightly confused at this time I have compiled the following analysis, which hopefully will provide an easy to understand summary of what has happened, what it means going forward, and with a little of my own perspective as a lawyer thrown in for good measure.

trump russia mueller report investigation criminal indictment obstruction barr collusion putin rosenstein

The Mueller Investigation
Before we dive into the findings of the investigation, I think it's important to provide a quick summary.

The Special Counsel investigation was initiated in May 2017 by Rod Rosenstein, the Trump-appointed Deputy Attorney General, following the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Comey accused Trump of firing him after he had refused to stop an FBI investigation into Trump's national security advisor Michael Flynn, a claim which was inadvertently lent extra credence by Trump himself, who stated on national TV that he had fired Comey to end "the Russia thing".

Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to find the answer to two questions: 1) whether there is credible evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly aided or co-ordinated with the Russian Government to influence the 2016 election, and 2) whether Donald Trump's conduct in office might constitute obstruction of justice.

The President has called the investigation a "witch hunt", but over the course of two years Robert Mueller's "witch hunt" has found an awful lot of witches, indicting some 40 people, with a total of 200 criminal charges. This includes almost a dozen members of Donald Trump's inner circle, including his Campaign Chairman, his personal attorney, his chief national security advisor, amongst several others. This makes it the second largest Special Counsel investigation in history in terms of indictments, behind only Watergate. This is in spite of it being among the shortest such investigations. A lot of criminals have been put behind bars by this investigation. It has been an unmitigated success in this regard.

In addition, Mueller's investigation has led to the spin off of as many as seventeen investigations being carried out by different departments. Mueller's initial investigatory phase may be complete, but these investigations continue.

Key findings and conclusions
Summarising the key findings of this much anticipated investigation is difficult because, well, we don't really know what the investigation found. Despite the investigation being complete, and the full 400 page report being delivered to the Attorney General, no one outside of his office has seen a single word.

Instead, all we have to go on is a description put out by the Trump administration itself. That alone should set off alarm bells. After all, in what other situation would the subject of an investigation be permitted to write up the conclusions of that investigation? Donald Trump's new Attorney General Bill Barr, who replaced Jeff Sessions ostensibly just so he could take control of this investigation, has provided a four page summary to Congress. In Barr's own words, the report "does not exonerate" the President.

The Barr Summary states that the Mueller Investigation concluded that the Russian Government did indeed interfere in our election in order to elect Donald Trump, but that Mueller was not able to "establish" that members of the Trump campaign actually co-ordinated with the Russians in support of this interference. The summary states that Mueller found numerous instances in which the Russians had attempted to work with the Trump campaign, but that it does not establish that the campaign ultimately did so, at least not in a way that meets the threshold of criminality.

On the second charge, Mueller's findings were far more alarming. The Barr Summary states that Mueller concluded that the President's conduct may have amounted to criminal obstruction of justice. The Special Counsel laid out the evidence for and against this charge, and then declined to draw a final conclusion, deferring the matter for further consideration. The Trump Administration then took it upon itself to decline further consideration, and conclude a lack of criminality. If the previous thing set off alarm bells, this one should have steam shooting out of your ears.

And now for a few of my own impressions and outstanding questions on this developing story:

1. No collusion? No conclusion
First of all let's be clear what we are talking about when it comes to "collusion". Collusion is not a criminal charge, and in the context of Donald Trump that word has been used to describe all manner of activity with the Russian Government. In the context of the Mueller investigation, that word has a much narrower meaning.

Robert Mueller, it has now been revealed by the Barr Summary, was looking very specifically into whether members of the Trump campaign co-ordinated with the Russian Government to illegally interfere in the 2016 election. Thus it is clearly erroneous to try and draw any conclusion over the broader question on Trump-Russian relations based on what Mueller has found. That being said, we know that Mueller has referred many cases to other investigators, and it is entirely possible that these may include other forms of collusion.

We also don't know precisely what the Mueller investigation found with respect to this very specific form of collusion. The Barr Summary states that the investigation "did not establish" that members of the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election, but it's not clear whether this is Mueller's conclusion, or just Barr's interpretation of his findings. Based on how the obstruction question was handled (ie Mueller just laid out the evidence and Barr made a judgement) one can reasonably assume that these may be Barr's own words, in which case the question is still very much open.

Even if we give Barr the benefit of the doubt and assume his conclusions accurately correspond to Mueller's own conclusions, as a lawyer I find his choice of words interesting. It is significant that Barr did not say "found no evidence of" but rather "did not establish that". This is very specific and careful language which clearly implies that there is in fact some evidence of this collusion, just not enough to rise to the standard of criminal prosecution (ie beyond a reasonable doubt).

To be clear: "collusion" doesn't necessarily mean there is a crime. There is no reasonable question of whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government. We already know from court filings that prosecutors believe there to have been collusion between Russia and at least some members of the Trump campaign (see Manafort providing polling data, Trump Jr's meeting, Roger Stone's Wikileaks contacts). The question is how much of this activity was actually criminal, and in the context of the Mueller investigation, specifically how much of this activity sought to criminally interfere in the 2016 election.

Based on what little we know of the investigation's findings, it appears that sufficient evidence has not been found to bring criminal charges in this specific area of collusion, although it would probably be premature to reach that conclusion until independent eyes have seen the underlying findings. It would certainly be premature to conclude that all forms of criminal collusion have been ruled out, and flat out delusional to conclude that collusion of any sort between members of the Trump campaign and Russian Government has been effectively ruled out.

2. On obstruction, the investigation must continue 
Even by the Trump Administration's own words, Mueller explicitly did not exonerate the President on this issue. Rather, the report apparently lays out the evidence on both sides, and concludes that the matter is close enough that the Special Counsel did not feel it within his remit to make so determinative a judgement. According to the Barr summary, the Special Counsel declined to conclude on obstruction, and suggested that further consideration was required.

Let's be clear. From a legal perspective, this is by far the most significant detail revealed in the Barr Summary. It has been frustrating to see the media obsess over the collusion question (itself potentially left ambiguous as discussed above) while completely ignoring the actual conclusion that the President may have committed serious criminal offences.

Two things to say about this. First, when so serious a criminal charge has been left unresolved, it is obviously wrong for the Trump Administration to legally exonerate itself. This is an absurd situation. No matter what your political beliefs or ideology, clearly the accused should not have the power to be their own judge and jury. If this question has been left open, it must be concluded by an independent body, by Congress, or both.

Secondly, even if an appropriate body does take this matter into further consideration and rules a lack of criminality, the very fact that it can't be ruled out is still significant. The standard for criminal indictment is beyond a reasonable doubt. If your threshold is 95% certainty, and you conclude that the matter is borderline, that's still pretty alarming.

3. The Mueller investigation appears to be much narrower in scope than expected
If we can divine one new revelation about the Mueller investigation from Barr's summary, it is that it was clearly far more narrow in scope than people might have realised or hoped.

The investigation has been notable for its opacity and complete radio silence. At no point has it even been clear precisely what Mueller was investigating. Inevitably, this has led to great speculation.

There have been a great many allegations of Trump-Russia connections in the media since the start of this Presidency. Allegations of kompromat, the Don Jr Trump Tower meeting, decades of shady business dealings, the perjury charges over Trump Tower Moscow, to name just a few.

A lot of people had expected, perhaps out of hope, that the Mueller investigation would cast a blinding spotlight onto all of this activity. The revelation that Mueller was, ostensibly, only looking into one small aspect of this relationship will be a disappointment to many, and the answer to these burning questions appears no clearer in its wake.

4. Mueller is done, but the investigation continues
Fortunately, the apparent narrowness of the Mueller Report does not necessarily mean that these questions have been ignored, or are not being addressed elsewhere.

The Barr Summary makes clear that Mueller has referred many open threads to other investigators. It is reasonable to assume that many of the unresolved issues, for example Don Jr's meeting and the as yet un-indicted allegation that Manafort provided RNC data to the Russians (as stated in Mueller's court filings), may still be under investigation by other departments. There were already as many as seventeen known ongoing investigations, but following the conclusion of Mueller's evidence gathering operation, it is likely there could be dozens that remain open.

Indeed, while the Mueller investigation may be in the process of handing off cases to other investigators, and does not expect to make further indictments, this does not mean the Special Counsel's work is complete. After all, there are still ongoing court proceedings to be handled. Even this week, after the investigation apparently wrapped up, the Mueller Grand Jury was said to still be continuing robustly.

So if it was not obvious before, it is now quite clear that the Mueller report represents only the opening phase of this investigation.

5. Did Trump fire Mueller?
One question which has been surprisingly overlooked is whether the Mueller investigation had, in fact, run its course, or whether the Trump Administration forced it to end prematurely.

We already know that Trump has tried, or at least considered whether to fire Mueller in the past. He very publicly criticised his previous Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not being able to step in and shut down the investigation, and declared his own Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein a traitor. Ultimately, Trump did fire Sessions, and appointed Barr in his place. Within days, the Mueller investigation was brought to an end.

It seems difficult to come up with any other explanation for why the investigation would end when, by the Barr Summary's own words, a final conclusion had not yet been reached. It is even stranger that the investigation would willingly wrap up while court proceedings are still pending, or while the Special Counsel is as we speak fighting in the Supreme Court for a subpoena against a mystery foreign company. As recently as just two weeks ago, Mueller asked for an extension for sentencing Rick Gates due to the fact that he was still assisting the Mueller investigation, and the same has been done for Michael Flynn. Barely a week before submitting his report, Robert Mueller requested additional funding.

This begs the obvious question: if the Mueller's investigation was close to completion, then what were Gates and Flynn still cooperating on? If Mueller is still collecting evidence from this mystery company, then how can they declare now that there will be no further indictments? These very recent actions seem to suggest quite strongly that Mueller was expecting to continue his investigation for the foreseeable future, so what changed?

This is all highly suggestive of an investigation being rushed to a conclusion. People had reasonably speculated that Sessions was fired and replaced specifically to bring about an end to the investigation, and ostensibly that is exactly what has happened.

6. This is not the first time Trump has wrongly claimed exoneration
The Trump administration has been predictably direct in its response. "Total exoneration", "case closed". In Trump's view, the end of this investigation means that all other ongoing investigations must end, and all those in Government and the media who investigated him must themselves be investigated and locked up.

A few things here. First, the fact that a sitting President would even dream of suggesting using the Department of Justice for revenge and political imprisonment is grotesquely corrupt. It's the sort of thing that would have been unthinkable in America a few years ago. The fact that a politician can propose such a thing and not be forced out of office the next day is a shocking reminder of how far this country has fallen in recent years, and a warning of just how easily democracy can shift toward authoritarianism and lawlessness.

Second, quite why Trump chose the one word that the Barr Summary explicitly states that the report does not do (exonerate) is a baffling mystery, and only serves to exacerbate doubt as to the veracity of his statement.

But the key point to note here, is just how meaningless such a statement is. After all, this administration has claimed exoneration at every step of this investigation, regardless of what the facts have shown. This is, after all, a President who when his personal lawyer testified under oath that the President directed him to break the law, tweeted: "Totally clears the President!". This administration has constantly attempted to dismiss the ongoing criminal investigations through obfuscation and noise, and this situation is no different. This is simply another attempt by the administration to confuse and mislead, and much like the story of the Boy who Cried Wolf, at a certain point you just stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.

7. Is Bill Barr covering for Trump?
Let's not beat around the bush. The timing of this whole thing is highly suspicious. Trump spent months attacking his own Justice Department for not shutting down the Mueller investigation. He ostensibly fired Jeff Sessions for this reason, and appointed Bill Barr as his replacement. Almost immediately after that appointment, the Mueller investigation ended.

The administration's actions since have done little to allay these suspicions. The fact that Barr has so far refused to release the underlying report, as well as the flagrantly dishonest narrative coming out of the White House, have only served to sow further doubt in the minds of the public.

If the intention was to close the case and let the American people move on, they are going about it entirely the wrong way.

8. The Barr Summary might be both accurate and a cover up
One possibility that should not be discounted at this point is the idea that the Barr Summary can be both entirely accurate, and still a cover up.

From what we know, it seems the Mueller investigation has conducted a comprehensive investigation of Trump's connections with Russia. It is entirely plausible that Mueller's report may contain findings which, while not necessarily criminal, are politically embarrassing to Trump. For example if Mueller's report shows that Trump is financially indebted to the Kremlin, as he is alleged to be, that might not be a crime in itself but it would clearly be significant, and would hurt him politically. It may also convince suspicious Americans that he is, in fact, guilty of a crime, even if the investigation did not find enough evidence to formally charge him.

Bill Barr's recent letter to Congress seems to indicate that this may be the case, stating that the longer summary awaiting release will be redacted to remove embarrassing information.

This raises a tricky question. In such situations Justice Department protocol rightly states that the privacy of persons not charged with a crime must be protected. After all, if an investigation does not charge someone with a crime, releasing details of that investigation could nevertheless prejudice the public against that person and harm their reputation. There are, of course, allowances for deviation from this policy where it serves the public interest.

The question then becomes, if the investigation found that Trump is politically or economically compromised, should that fact be disclosed to the public, or is Trump entitled to keep all non-criminal dirt a secret? This is tricky ethical and legal ground without an obvious answer. Does the President have a legal right to lie to the American people so long as it is not criminal, and is the Justice Department obligated to protect that right? It may be that the answer is yes, but that doesn't mean that it is morally correct.

9. What should happen next?
Whatever the findings may be, and whether not this has happened appropriately or illicitly, it is clear that this first phase of the investigation is complete. The question now is what next?

In an ideal world where justice is carried out without political bias and where Government functions as it should, the next steps are obvious. The open question of obstruction would be taken up by Congress, as recommended by the Special Counsel, and brought to conclusion one way or another. This entire situation makes abundantly clear just how important it is to have independent oversight over our leaders, if for no other reason that to afford Americans the peace of mind that they are not being deceived. Sadly we do not live in that world, and it seems likely that this matter will be never be resolved apolitically.

The Trump Administration is clearly trying to use the Barr Summary draw a line under, not only this investigation, but all ongoing investigations. It also seems disturbingly likely that Trump will use the prospect of "revenge" investigations and political indictments as a core part of his 2020 campaign.

At this point, there is only one thing that seems capable of bringing this matter to a definitive end: releasing the full Mueller findings to Congress, and letting them do their job and provide appropriate oversight. Clearly some people will have concerns about whether the Democrats in charge of Congress will do this without political bias, but the whole point of referring the matter to Congress is that it will be public and transparent. That way, if the Democrats do behave inappropriately, people will be able to see it. For any concern that one might have with Congressional oversight, this is clearly a better situation than the current one, where the accused has exonerated itself and hidden all underlying evidence and findings.

This last point seems to be the key takeaway going forward. Whatever the investigation has found, the Trump Administration's handling of it's conclusion carries the clear whiff of corruption and cover up. This appears to have been the conclusion of the American people as well. A clear majority say that Trump has not been exonerated, while barely a third believe that he has been. An astonishing 75%, including a clear majority of Republicans, want the Mueller Report to be released in full. On top of this, Trump's approval ratings have barely budged, and YouGov even showed a slight dip this week.

Whether fair or unfair, it is clear that the public has not been convinced by the Barr Summary. People want transparency, and so far this administration has refused that. They want justice to be independent and apolitical, and yet currently the administration appears to be content to exonerate itself without external scrutiny. This impression may yet turn out to be undeserved or unfair, but the administration has only itself to blame when it acts without transparency or independence in this way.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Hello and welcome back to 2019's final post from the Hot List. This week we will be looking at the most exciting new movies set to hit the big screen in 2019 from February onwards, after the cutoff point for this year's awards season.

ephemeric hot list most best hottest anticipated new movies films 2019 exciting

2018, quite the year in cinema. Netflix came into its cinematic own with a film that finally managed not to revile critics. The Academy bent over backwards to show just how progressive and racially sensitive it is, only to then give the big prize to a film that somehow managed to offend a whole lot of people, and the Brits made a splash with a costumed period piece, but not the one everyone was expecting. Lady Gaga got herself past the halfway point to a coveted EGOT that we all know is inevitably coming, and we had our first MCU Oscar winner. And you know what? None of it was all that surprising.

One of the reasons why I always leave this post for the end of the Hot List is to leave time for thorough consideration. This particular blog post has a formidable track record when it comes to predicting cinematic success, and indeed last year's 15 picks ended up with some 30 Oscar nominations between them. So once again the pressure is on to keep this hot streak going. It is fortunate then that 2019 is looking like such a strong year for film, and after much thought I have managed to whittle this down to a lineup of 15 very exciting projects. These range from your typical Oscar prestige pictures, to blockbusters, sci-fi, and some very quirky concepts that defy classification.

So enjoy, the key films to keep an eye on in the coming year (trailers linked in the title where available), starting with number 15:

15. Us

hot list best films movies 2019 us jordan peele get out lupita nyong'oLet's start with Jordan Peele's much anticipated follow up to Get Out, Us.

His critically acclaimed directorial debut made Peele one of the hottest names in Hollywood, with a multitude of prominent new TV series and film projects bearing his name. Us is his next major feature film and that makes it one of the most closely watched prospects for 2019.

Lupita Nyong'o and Elisabeth Moss star in this tale of a family vacation that goes horribly wrong when the young family cross paths with a group of "strangers" who somehow look exactly like them. If Get Out was a social satire with horror pretensions, Us sees Peele move much deeper into the horror side of that genre.

Suffice it to say, this looks to be one of the year's most hotly anticipated releases when it his cinemas in March. It will be very interesting to see whether Peele really can consolidate his position as Hollywood It Boy, or if his prior success will prove to be only a flash in the pan.

Release Date: 22 March, 2019

14. The Goldfinch

goldfinch best movies films 2019 ansel elgortThe Goldfinch is director John Crowley's follow up to the excellent Brooklyn, and an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Donna Tartt. It's getting quite a lot of buzz.

Crowley's considerable talents will be complemented by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, a fact which alone makes this film worth watching. Ansel Elgort stars, in a role which is being tipped to take the Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars star to a new level, and perhaps, into awards contention.

Elgort will be joined by an able cast which includes Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman, and Sarah Paulson. Expect this to hit cinemas with a very Oscar-friendly October release.

Release Date: 19 October, 2019

13. Brightburn

brightburn superman best films movies 2019 james gunn elizabeth banksSome films deserve to be on this list purely by merit of a fantastic concept. Brightburn offers a twist on the classic Superman origin mythos: alien baby crashes in rural America, two kindly childless farmers find said alien baby and raise him to be a super-powered paragon of humanity.

Brightburn considers what might have happened had this alien baby not been an inherently good natured soul, but something more sinister entirely.

Let's be clear. Brightburn is not going to trouble the awards season next year; a directorial debut from the unknown David Yarovesky, starring the hit or miss Elizabeth Banks, though the presence of James Gunn as producer does lend some heavyweight chops to the production team. No, this is going to be some good old fashioned schlocky horror, but it looks like  a ton of fun.

Brightburn releases this May.

Release Date: 24 May, 2019

12. Fair and Balanced

fair and balanced fox news roger ailes scandal rupert murdoch trump best films movies 2019 jay roach charlize theron nicole kidmanGiven the current politically charged climate, it is perhaps no surprise that every man and their dog wants to have their say with some commentary piece. The topic of the moment appears to be the late Roger Ailes, communications honcho for the corrupt Nixon administration turned Fox News founder, and a man who is credited with having played a starring role in devolving America's political process into the current muddy, propagandistic shitshow that it is.

Specifically, Fair and Balanced looks to focus on the late Ailes' various sex scandals that rocked the latter period of his life, and turned him into one of the major antagonists of the #metoo movement.

Director Jay Roach has had an interesting career trajectory, cutting his cinematic teeth with popular comedies like Austin Powers before moving more recently into hard hitting politics with Recount, Game Change, and Trumbo. Fair and Balanced looked to be his most significant project in that sphere to date.

More to the point, Roach is joined by an absurdly stocked cast which features the likes of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman (again), John Lithgow, Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon, and Malcom McDowell. Honestly one of the best lineups of talent I've seen in years.

Release Date: TBA 2019

11. The Laundromat

the laundromat panama papers meryl streep gary oldman soderbergh netflix best films movies 2019The Laundromat has a simple hook, it is the Panama Papers film that has long been inevitable. Steven Soderbergh directs and produces in collaboration with Netflix, and it is clear they are aspiring to create the next heavyweight political drama.

The cast is bristling with big performers, including Meryl Streep (which pretty much guarantees it an Oscar nomination), Gary Oldman, and a supporting cast of James Cromwell, Jeffrey Wright, Antonio Banderas, and David Schwimmer.

Hollywood loves a good political movie, and given the current climate, this one is sure to grab people's attention.

Release Date: TBA 2019

10. Lucy in the Sky

noah hawley fargo legion lucy in the sky best films movies 2019 natalie portman jon hammThis is an interesting one. Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm star in this drama about an astronaut who faces psychological issues upon her return to Earth and spirals out of control, loosely based on a true story.

But what makes Lucy in the Sky particularly interesting is that it makes the directorial film debut of Noah Hawley, currently one of the hottest talents in the TV world for his award winning adaptations of Fargo and Legion.

The man has a midas touch when it comes to television, as it will be very interesting to see how he adapts to the big screen. This could be a breakthrough film.

Lucy in the Sky is expected to release in the latter half of 2019.

Release Date: TBA 2019

9. Jojo Rabbit

jojo rabbit taika waititi thor scarlett johansson sam rockwell what we do in shadows flight conchords best films movies 2019Another potential breakthrough here, this time for director Taika Waititi. The New Zealand-based writer/actor/director first came to prominence in Hollywood with cult horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows, but it was his widely acclaimed production of Thor:Ragnarok that really thrust him into the directorial it-list.

Jojo Rabbit, based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, therefore represents a big moment in his career. A chance to make a non-franchise film with major Hollywood backing.

Jojo Rabbit's bizarre concept concerns a young boy living during World War II, whose only means of escapism comes through his imaginary friend, and ethnically inaccurate version of Adolf Hitler. Waititi himself stars alongside Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, and Rebel Wilson. A success here could firmly cement Waititi's place in the A-list of up and coming directors.

Release Date: TBA 2019

8. Ford v Ferrari

ford ferrari logan best films movies 2019 christian baleThe first real heavyweight from this preview: Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the rivalry between the Ford and Ferrari racing teams of the mid 20th Century.

Directorial duties will be handed to James Mangold, who has been on a bit of a hot streak with Walk the Line3:10 to Yuma, and Logan, all films that have been well received critically without really propelling Mangold to the real heights of stardom (though he did get an Oscar nomination for Logan). Ford v Ferrari could be the film that sees Mangold take that next step.

Christian Bale and Matt Damon star, while the script is penned by award winning scribe Jezz Butterworth, who will be well known to those familiar with the London theatre scene.

Ford v Ferrari will hit screens right in the height of the awards season, November 2019.

Release Date: 15 November, 2019

7. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

beautiful day in the neighborhood mr fred rogers tom hanks best films movies 2019A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood sees the relatively inexperienced writer/director team of TV's critically acclaimed Transparent helm what otherwise appears to be a fairly significant project, the biopic of Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers).

That team is, of course, director Marielle Heller and writer Noah Harpster in a potentially career making moment. Their credibility somewhat bolstered by the dream casting of Tom Hanks in the leading roll, and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel a journalist tasked with profiling Rogers.

The film releases in November. Too obvious for Oscar bait? Perhaps, but I'd bet good money on Hanks at least getting a nomination.

Release Date: 22 November, 2019

6. Wendell and Wild

wendell and wild henry selick nightmare before christmas coraline best films movies 2019Pardon the sentiment, but it's about goddamn time. The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline are such beloved films, and yet for some inexplicable reason no studio ever seems to want to give their director Henry Selick work.

Well, Netflix finally seem to have seen the vast opening in exploiting that fanbase, and will produce his next feature film Wendell and Wild. Selick will be supported by Hollwood man of the moment Jordan Peele and Peele's long-time collaborator Keegan-Michael Key who will write and star in the film.

Release date is still very much up in the air, but I for one am very excited to see more of this man's unique vision come to the screen, and let's hope it leads to a long and fruitful relationship with Netflix.

Release Date: TBA 2019

5. The Joker

the joker joaquin phoenix batman heath ledger best films movies 2019Let's get straight to the point, the DC comics shared cinematic universe has been an unmitigated dumpster fire since it was launched. And this is coming from someone who has always preferred DC comics to Marvel. So it is a relief to see Warner Bros taking the bold decision to make one-off standalone films outside of the share universe that allows more interesting filmmakers to make sure of these beloved characters free from the shackles of the larger franchise.

The Joker is the first of these productions. Based on the classic Batman villain Joker, this eponymous film serves as a sort of origin story, but done more in the style of a classic crime drama than a superhero action movie. The brilliant Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who slowly loses his mind and turns to a life of crime. Robert De Niro is also on cast, while Todd Phillips of The Hangover directs.

The script from Oscar nominated Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) promises a far more grounded and twisted take on the classic mythos, one which focuses more on the psychological aspects of the character.

It's a sad fact that Phoenix is always going to have a tough challenge in facing comparisons to the late Heath Ledger's Oscar winning turn in this role. Despite this, I'm excited to see such an original and daring take on such a well known property.

Release Date: 4 October, 2019

4. Queen and Slim

queen and slim master of none get out daniel kaluuya melina matsoukas lena waithe best films movies 2019Queen and Slim, an original drama starring Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner Smith, about a young black couple who are pulled over on a date and are go on the run after they are forced to kill the cop in self-defence.

It would be tempting to dismiss Queen and Slim as just the latest bandwagon film to jump onto the current awards season trend of the moment, especially following a year in which Green Book, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Blackkklansman all received awards for covering similar topics. But there is real buzz building that this project could make a splash in 2019, and in particular due to the exciting, fresh talent involved behind the camera.

Queen and Slim will mark feature film writing debut of the Emmy winning Master of None co-writer Lena Waithe, and the directorial debut of Melina Matsoukas, also best known for her DGA/Emmy nominated work on Master of None. Both have cut their teeth with widely acclaimed storytelling prowess on television, and it will be very exciting to see what they can do on the big screen.

Release Date: 27 November, 2019

3. Yesterday

yesterday richard curtis danny boyle beatles lennon mccartney ringo best film movie 2019 ed sheeranTea, rain, red buses, and Richard Curtis movies. Few things feel so quintessentially British, and even fewer things elicit such nationwide approval. Now the legendary screenwriter of Four Weddings, Love Actually, and Notting Hill is back with an utterly bizarre premise to which the only appropriate response is "oh that is so Richard Curtis".

Yesterday ponders the question, what if you woke up and no one remembered the Beatles except you? It stars Himesh Patel as the one person with that knowledge, who hence becomes famous for "writing" all their songs. Lily James, Kate McKinnon, and, oddly, Ed Sheeran co-star.

It is hard to imagine how such a strange concept is going to work on film, but in the hands of such a skilled writer I am willing to suspend disbelief. Making the project even more exciting is the collaboration with the great Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later). This marks the first time the two British icons have collaborated, and we should all be exceedingly excited to see the result.

Release Date: 28 June, 2019

2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

once upon a time in hollywood quentin tarantino charles manson sharon tate  leonardo dicaprio brad pitt margot robbie best films movies 2019Arguably the film that everyone is talking about heading into 2019. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the new picture from Quentin Tarantino, an ambitious Hollywood fable of two television actors trying to break into film, set against the backdrop of the Manson Family and the murder of Sharon Tate.

Quite how these two seemingly separate narratives will gel is anyone's guess, but it's clear that the grizzly Manson Family will take more than just second billing. The all star cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, and Lena Dunham.

Tarantino is best known for his heavily stylised, hyper-violent filmmaking, and it will be curious to see how he approaches a story of true crime (one would hope with some semblance of dignity). This film releases in July and it is going to be a big one.

Release Date: 26 July, 2019

1. The Irishman

best films movies 2019 the irishman martin scorsese robert deniro al pacino harvey keitel joe pesciOur number one pick for 2019 is the new film from legendary director Martin Scorsese, The Irishman.

This is a biographical crime film based on the novel I Heard You Paint Houses, and it features arguably the greatest of all Scorsese casts. This includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino (incredibly the first time Scorsese has directed him), Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, and Bobby Cannavale. It's basically a who's who of the great Italian-American actors.

Eyebrows were raised when Netflix scored the exclusive rights to this film, but after Roma hit the awards season in a big way last year, all such doubts have been dispelled. Netflix has shown that it is capable of producing top class cinema, and with The Irishman they have all the tools to create something very special.

Release Date: TBA 2019

So there you have it folks: The 2019 Hot List. Here's to a fantastic year, and the Hot List will return in 2020!

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