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Wednesday 31 December 2014

The Green Prince (2014), Documentary Film by Nadav Shirman, 9* out of 10

This is a true spy story about a most unlikely informant and his deceptively cuddly handler. Every avid reader of John Le Carré’s novels anticipates what must follow: the tough and cynical world of espionage agencies will triumph over any optimistic belief in human nature  – but reality can be stranger than fiction, even when it comes to trumping a comfortably pessimistic world-view.

The Green Prince tells the story of Mussab Hassan Youssef, son of one of the leaders of the Hamas movement, who for 10 years worked as an informant for the Israeli Shin Bet spy agency. The title of the film is the codename given to him by Shin Bet. Mussab Hassan Youssef and his Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak tell the almost unbelievable story in their own words through separate interviews. 

Mussab Hassan Youssef gives us considerable insight in how he became an informant and how he justified his role by preventing numerous suicide bombings of innocent Israeli civilians by the militant wing of Hamas. Both the informant and his handler, the latter initially much more cold and calculating, gradually developed personal motivations and a close relationship. That relationship, of course, is highly asymmetric. Ben Yitzhak is in the powerful position. He has the backing and support of the formidable Shin Bet behind him. Mussab Hassan Youssef has to rely entirely on himself. He risks life and limb every minute of every day. But gradually Hassan Youssef develops his own inner coherent narrative and self-confidence; the tables begin to turn.

At this point every avid reader of John Le Carré’s novels knows what will happen next. The tough and cynical world of espionage agencies must triumph over any optimistic belief in human nature  – but reality can be stranger than fiction, even when it comes to trumping a comfortably pessimistic world-view.

This is a story of a journey by two human beings whose lives intersect and who at different moments are compelled to make important decisions raising moral dilemmas that lie at the outer limits of normal human experience. The strength of this film is that it draws us into the question: what would I do?

For the deceptively cuddly Gonen Ben Yitzhak this is the story of an inner journey. For The Green Prince his code-name appears to foretell not only an inner journey but an amazing outer transformation: through the metaphorical kiss of Beverly Hills plastic surgery and dental work, Mussab Hassan Youssef morphs from unattractive frog to Hollywood like Prince Charming. 

The fictionalized action movie of his life may already be in the works, Green Prince - the musical cannot be far behind.

Nadav Shirman has created a compelling documentary that deservedly won the prestigious Sundance Festival 2014 audience award. The questions raised as you watch this movie will resonate for a long time.  A must see.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Here Lies Love, Musical, written by John Byrne and Fatboy Slim, National Theatre, London, 8.5* out of 10

Alex Timbers’ production is dynamic and inventive, getting members of his audience involved in the action in very creative ways. A young, attractive and energetic ensemble delivers the choreography of Annie-B Parson to great effect so that the enthusiasm truly spreads across the audience. Very watchable.

The intimate theatrical space formerly known as the Cottesloe has been refurbished and renamed the Dorfman Theatre. It is being inaugurated with the rags-to-riches biopic of one of the post-war period’s most notorious female political icons, Imelda Marcos.

Here Lies Love tells the story of the former Philippines first lady who had to be rescued by the US government by helicopter from the roof of the Manila presidential palace when the Philippines went through a peaceful uprising long before the Arab Spring and removed the authoritarian regime established by General Ferdinand Marcos with a bloodless overthrow and return to democracy. 

Imelda’s humble origins contrasted with her unlimited ambition for power and wealth. She leveraged her beauty queen looks to good effect. Rejected by her boyfriend the later senator and presidential hopeful Ninoy Aquino for being taller than him, she managed to gain the undying devotion of World War II-hero and later President Ferdinand Marcos. Her appetite for New York, glamour, shoes and parties could now be fully indulged in mainly with other people’s money being syphoned off and turned into her own. (The musical ends with her exile from the Philippines, but in 2014 , now well into her eighties, Imelda is back in the Philippines as an elected senator with an estimated net worth in excess of USD 5 billion).

Fatboy Slim (formerly of the Housemartins) and David Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads) are themselves British music-scene icons whose heyday overlapped with Imelda’s. She was a wannabe disco-queen and performer at her own glamorous celebrity parties for Western elite politicians and Hollywood wannabes. The musical treatment by Slim and Byrne captures this very well.

Alex Timbers’ production is dynamic and inventive, getting members of his audience involved in the action in very creative ways. At the beginning, the theatre looks like a 1980s disco set and the moving and rotating stage works excellently well as the action moves across time and place. The designers (set: David Korins, lighting: Justin Townsend, sound: M. L. Dogg and Cody Spencer) deserve a special mention. A young, attractive and energetic ensemble delivers the choreography of Annie-B Parson to great effect so that the enthusiasm truly spreads across the audience.

The political background to the story is presented effectively through projections of TV footage of real events. While all the international political drama is not as fully explored as Imelda’s ruthlessness greed and disappointment in the lack of love shown her by her people, one leaves this musical thoroughly entertained, and energised and with the New Years resolution that one does have to do some background reading on the politics and history of the Philippines in the 20th century.

Natalie Mendoza is a charismatic Imelda Marcos, Marc Bautista (Ferdinand Marcos) and Dean John Wilson (Ninoy Aquino) give strong performances and Martin Serreal (as DJ) really rocks the joint and gets the new Dorfman theatre off to a great swinging start.

Sunday 7 December 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, (2014) Film directed by Francis Lawrence 7.5* out of 10

With the Huger Games: Mockingjay dystopian science fiction is coming home – not good sign for the real world.

Katnis Everdeen, (Jenifer Lawrence) the reluctant but victorious female gladiator having morphed into the regime’s recalcitrant superstar has now openly turned against the regime and joined the opposition. 

At the start of Part 1 of the final volume of Suzanne Collins’ young adult fiction book trilogy (spun out in the screen version over 2 films), Katniss has managed to rescue her mother, sister. With her also is Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) one of her two love interests between whom she will eventually have to choose unless polyandry becomes a viable option in her universe or a third marriageable bachelor should turn up unexpectedly. The love story is weakest link in the otherwise interesting  and coherent plot.

Mockingjay shows Katniss as a female figurehead of the opposition uprising, which pitches the agro-industrial regions of Panem (the fictional country in which this tale takes place) against its exploitative capital. The female president of the opposition Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) is surrounded her political advisors some of whom used to advise the ruling regime but have become disaffected with it.

What lifts the Hunger Games to the quality end of not only Young Adult Science Fiction is the coherence of the story with the depiction of a credible exploitative authoritarian regime whose opulence is displayed in a wealthy capital city.  It has achieved that wealth by enslaving the population and exploiting the natural riches of the capital’s hinterland. An other strength of Mockingjay is its depiction of the sophisticated handling through the use of iconic images for propaganda on both sides of the conflict.  The film succeeds through strong performances, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is special political adviser Plutarch Heavensbee to the opposition president. Donald Sutherland continues to shine as the charismatically clever and delectably evil President Snow.

Most disturbing about the Mockingjay - Part1 is that it has been overtaken by reality. The scenes of devastation in Syria and Iraq, the propaganda movies Daësh (Islamic State), the female Kurdish Peshmerga heroines fighting in Syria’s North are today’s reality. So is a President and her advisers watching a commando raid relayed live from body cameras of the elite military unit to the situation room.  What makes our 2014 reality more dystopian than this fiction is the involvement with good and bad intention of foreign governments, international media and non-governmental organisations. Moreover and most frighteningly the brutality with which the rebels conduct their uprising and their use of it in propaganda videos has outpaced anything The Hunger Games Mocking Jay can offer. 

As a result, many in the audience will not be able to keep themselves from wondering whether a government led by Alma Coin surrounded by her advisors will be more effective in providing justice and rule of law to the surviving inhabitants of Panem’s regions than one led by President Snow.  The pictures in our heads of the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are a context which deeply influences our perspective on what is turning out to be an evocative piece of fiction turned, not unsuccessfully, into an epic saga unfolding on the silver screen. Dystopian science fiction is coming home – not good thing for the real world. 

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here – Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, Book by Karima Bennoune, W.W. Norton and Company 2013, 9* out of 10

Karima Bennoune has written a thought provoking book. Invaluable reading for anyone wishing to form a better understanding of the struggle for freedom, justice and equal opportunity by courageous individuals in places where totalitarian interpretations of Islam aim to suppress these universal values by terrorising those who strive for them.

In Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here the Algerian/American Human Rights lawyer Karima Bennoune presents a number of important people to us who deserve to be much better known in the West than they currently are. Like Bennoune, they fight for dignity, justice, personal freedom and equal opportunity for men and women against radical Islamist movements that want to deny them. Many of them, though by no means all, are women. All of them are active in countries where it is in the name of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam that they have often endured the constant threat of terrible violence to themselves and to those dear to them. In many instances that threat has been realised. Through her interviews Bennoune enables us to hear the protagonists speak in their own voice.

As the daughter of a man who suffered such threats himself, Bennoune knows what this means from personal experience and she is able to convey it vividly to her readers. As a Human Rights lawyer working for NGOs like Amnesty International, she also understands how to address these instances with professionalism.

Bennoune collected her interviews and wrote her book in the midst of the period when the hopes elicited by the Arab Spring turned into near despair in most of the Arab world. This made her work particularly challenging and the outcome especially interesting.

Unusually as a writer closely associated with the Human Rights movement in the West, Bennoune is an important voice denouncing the tolerance towards Islamist political movements of the liberal and not so liberal left, including her former employer Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and similar NGOs as well as many Western governments. How easily they are fooled by the dissimulation of “moderate” Islamism and the willingness of radical Islamist movements to participate in a “faux-democratic” process. This she finds is often based on a flimsy understanding of the nature of the path to true democracy and a wilful blindness towards any movement that share the Western political Left’s dislike of the US and its policies particularly those towards the wider Middle East.

Her book also stands out from the crowd because she manages to combine the personal with the professional and is willing and able to turn a clear and critical eye on herself.  

Bennoune illustrates the impact of what she sees as the blatant misuse of Islam for a violent ideology suppressing the freedom of people and particularly to enjoy not only a dignified life but also theatre, music, and culture. And she shows how courageous women and courageous men stand up against incredible odds and in the face of terrifying violence in mostly non-violent struggles for justice and dignity for themselves their families and their people.

Karima Bennoune is a talented writer able to paint a vivid picture of the people she has interviewed and the countries with their specific political and social circumstances that form the specific background for each of the human rights activists she has interviewed. Not surprisingly she succeeds particularly well in telling the story of her native Algeria where people died in their thousands as a result of fundamentalist violence under reported and often misunderstood and misrepresented in the West. The chapter on Iranian human rights activists is also particularly successful. Less coherent is her apparent need to limit what others will make of her book, particularly when, after criticising the misdeeds of the Islamist Hamas, she  pronounces her own Fatwa on supporters of the current Israeli Government using her findings to comfort their own positions in any way. This seems to have to do more with US leftist university campus politics - Bennoune is a law professor at UC Davis - than the subject of her book as she does not feel she has to distance herself just as strongly from anti-Islamists in the US and the West who do not share her leftist political convictions.   

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is a very readable and thought provoking book. Invaluable reading for anyone in the West wishing to form a better understanding of the struggle for freedom, justice and equal opportunity by courageous individuals in places where totalitarian interpretations of Islam aim to suppress these universal values by terrorising those who strive for them.

Karima Bennoune

Saturday 8 November 2014

The Kindergarten Teacher (Haganenet), Film France-Israel 2014, written and directed by Nadav Lapid, 8* out of 10

The Kindergarten Teacher is a very human film. Clearly situated in Israel, the film’s message will resonate in European countries, where feeling uneasy about consumerism and pining for a life in which poetry and art that can nourish more than the soul is the dream of many a rat-race marathonist. Interesting, moving and thought-provoking.

Nira (strong performance by Sarit Larry) is an experienced Kindergarten teacher, the wife of a civil servant (Lior Raz), embattled in minor office politics, and the mother of a teenage son just about to complete his compulsory army service. She is competent in all those roles, but her heart really is in her Kindergarten.

One of the children she looks after is Yoav (beatifully portrayed by 5-year-old Avi Shnaidman). When Nira discovers that he has a talent for spontaneously inventing poetry in trancelike bursts, she decides to dedicate herself, beyond the call of duty, to allowing the boy’s talent to develop.  This is not easy, as Yoav’s family circumstances are all except favourable to a future career as a poet. His mother left Yoav and his father to take up with a lover in America; Yoav’s father Amnon (Yehezkel Lazarov) is a successful owner of a Michelin- starred-restaurant, whose brother (Dan Toren) is a minor and relatively penniless poet. So in his view, to ensure his son’s happiness and financial well being, Yoav’s poetical side mustn’t be encouraged. As Yoav is also a very normal and quite social young lad when he doesn’t have one of his poetical trances, his father may indeed have a point. 

Yoav’s nanny Miri (spiky performance by the multi talented Ester Rada) does her job quite well, but without any overenthusiasm. She is not much interested in what’s right or wrong for the child-poet in her charge.  But she knows what’s good for her, and uses little Yoav’s poems as audition texts to further her acting career. 

Nadav Lapid’s script and his characters worked for me. Nira’s development, as she lives out a mid-life crisis by giving full rein to her romantic ideas in just the area of her life where it’s arguable that she should act professionally at all times may truly annoy some viewers. Other more poetically inclined viewer's hearts may go out to her. 

Fortunately, Lapid deploys a significant dose of irony and humour in the way he portrays how society around her reacts to what Nira has to reveal about her prodigy’s talents. Nira, while clearly obsessed, is clever and practical about checking out Yoav’s talents and seeking to protect the child.

As a director, Nadav Lapid has employed interesting means of using the camera perspective to give his audience more insight into what is going on; and it works.

The Kindergarten Teacher is a very human film, mainly about Nira’s personal journey. Not far below the surface, it is also about the role and goal of education in society and politics. Clearly situated in Israel, the film’s message will resonate in France and other European countries, where feeling uneasy about consumerism and pining for a life in which poetry and art that can nourish more than the soul is the dream of many a rat-race marathonist.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Ida, Film Poland 2013, written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Pawel Pawilowski, 10* out of 10

"Ida" treats important subjects too big to ignore, indeed almost too big to cope with. The understated style of this film make it a most moving, and true tale about human resilience and its limits and about human nastiness beyond limits. The beautiful low key performances of Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska are outstanding. 

Poland in the early 1960s.  Eighteen-year-old orphaned Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska)  is preparing to take her vows as a nun in a catholic monastery. Before she does so, Mother Superior instructs her to spend time with an aunt, the sister of Anna’s mother, of whose existence Anna was uanaware.

Anna’s aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) turns out to be a former hard-line communist, who made her career as an unforgiving prosecutor in Polish political trials in the 1950s. Why has she avoided contact her niece? 

Wanda tells Anna about her Jewish mother and father who were killed in the war. She knows that searching for the truth about what happened to her sister will compel her to face the demons of her own past.

Anna whose birth name is Ida,  has to learn to live with her true and truly terrible family-history in a Polish society of which she is a part, an outsider, a victim and a shaper of her own future all at once. Will the young woman break down under the almost unbearable weight of her history? 

The dry, true, deeply tragic wisdom of her Aunt Wanda and a young Polish Jazz musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) whom the two women meet on their search for the truth may help her to cope; but the seemingly strong can be terribly vulnerable too. 

"Ida" treats important subjects too big to ignore, indeed almost too big to cope with. The understated style of this film make it a most moving, and true tale about human resilience and its limits and about human nastiness beyond limits. The beautiful low key performances of Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska are outstanding. 

Director Pawel Pawilowski does an excellent job in letting the story and its characters unfold. The black and white photography reveals many shades of grey in 1960s Poland. 

"Ida" demonstrates once more, if such a demonstration were needed, that the Lodz film school in which many first class Polish filmmakers are able to learn their craft is a great boon for quality cinema in Europe.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

UK Jewish Film Festival 2014 - 3 film reviews originally written for Jewish Renaissance Magazine

Bethlehem,  Israel 2013, Film written by Yuval Adler and Ali Waked, directed by Yuval Adler, 8* out of 10 

Set during the Second Intifada, Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem, co-written with Israeli- Arab journalist Ali Waked, centres on the relationship between Sanfur (Shadi Ma’ari), a Palestinian youth, and Razi (Tzachi Halevy), an Israeli secret service agent who recruited Sanfur as an informant at the age of 15. However, Sanfur’s brother is a prominent member of the armed group the Al Aqsa brigade, and he organises a suicide attack in Jerusalem, making him a target for the Israelis. The ensuing divided loyalties and contradictory motivations on all sides, test beyond breaking point the complicated relationship between Razi and Sanfur.

No one emerges with much credit from the reality of intelligence work, or the dealings by both Israelis and Palestinians with corrupt officials of the Palestinian Authority. The relationship between Razi and Sanfur may be ambiguous, but the motives for the use of Sanfur by the Israelis are completely unambiguous: he is a replaceable pawn in the dirty war between militant Palestinian organisations and the Israeli army. But Sanfur’s brother and father do not treat him much better than Razi and his bosses. Ultimately he is the tragic anti-hero of Bethlehem, finally left vulnerable and helpless. Only the leader of the local Al Aqsa cell, the ruthless, charismatic Badawi (in a great performance by Hitham Omari) emerges with the credit of not playing a double game.

Bethlehem shows a side of the Israeli- Palestine conflict that both sides would rather forget, and the impact on those who fight the dirty war on behalf of the politicians, ideologues and civilians. It is a hard-hitting, well-acted, feel-bad movie par excellence. 

Agi Erdos & Alex Radzyner

The Internet's Own Boy, USA 2014, Documentary written and directed by Brian Knappenberger, 8* out of 10

This film tells the story of internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz, who, in a life tragically cut short by suicide at the age of 26, managed to significantly contribute to the important RSS-standard on the internet, help the internet start-up Reddit to great success and mastermind a successful campaign to prevent a bad law (the so-called SOPA, which would have given undue power to copyright holders) being passed by the US Congress.

Relying on family videos, archive material and interviews with people personally and professionally close to Aaron, Knappenberger, who also wrote the script, makes a convincing case for the hypothesis that Swartz’ suicide was caused by the disproportionate zeal with which the law enforcement agencies hounded him.

Like his great idol Tim Berners Lee, Swartz was not driven by wanting to make money (although he briefly was a millionaire at the age of 18), but by a vision of what good the internet could do for social justice and human progress.

If only he had not been badly let down by his country’s institutions. If only he had been supported more vigorously by the leading lights of the internet community; or been able o share his anxiety about the threat of a long jail sentence with family and friends. There are many if onlys.

The film tackles a subject full of technical and legal complications with great clarity, raising important philosophical, social and psychological questions in an engaging style. It is a compelling story that speaks to our intellect and our heart.

Shadow in Baghdad, Israel 2013, Documentary written and directed by Duki and Galia Dror, 7.5* out of 10 (but don't miss it)

By the rivers of Zion, there we sat and wept when we remembered Baghdad... 

Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin is a journalist in Israel who misses the Baghdad of her youth, from which she fled, in 1971, aged 21. Mohammed is a journalist in Iraq who misses the same Baghdad – but born in 1972, he only knows about it from listening to tales of the city as a young boy on his grandmother’s knee.

Shortly after she fled from Iraq, Linda’s father, a prominent member of the Jewish community, was abducted by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. Linda is desperate to know what happened to him. As she cannot visit Iraq and Mohammed cannot visit Israel, the two bridge the distance in geography and age when they collaborate on a story via the internet. 

The story is about Baghdad’s Jews, who disappeared from Iraq after living side by side with other communities for over 2000 years. Shadow in Baghdad is handicapped because the key interactions between Linda and Mohammed happen via the internet, which are difficult to portray visually. A further barrier is the need to pixellate Mohammed’s face: communicating with an Israeli or showing interest in Iraq’s former Jewish community could put Mohammed and his family in mortal danger.

But any technical shortcomings are made up for by the quality of the story the film tells. In just over an hour Shadow in Baghdad manages to touch on a number of deeply moving themes, such as the relationship between a father and daughter, and between sisters. The developing relationship between Linda and Mohammed is also compelling: despite initial mutual suspicion, the two protagonists, who have never met, gradually learn to respect and trust one another. 

When the film ends we are left wanting to know more about their lives – and about the Jewish community before and after it had to leave its home between the Tigris and Euphrates.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Despatches from the Kabul Café, Book by Heidi Kingstone, Advance Editions (2014), 8* out of 10

With her empathy for the position of women in Afghanistan, a healthy dose of irony for expats living the (good?) life in Afghanistan and an eye for beauty and fashion in the most unlikely places, Ms Kingstone's very readable vignettes are a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the plethora of writing sparked by the West’s intervention in Afghanistan.

When western democracies go to war in far away places in the 21st century, public opinion demands that they win hearts and minds. Moreover, they must  set-up institutions for democracy to take root after the killing of enemies and the collateral damage to friends and undecided or innocent bystanders is done.

So besides the military and their private sector entourage - security firms, contractors of all kinds - western governments will want to make sure that they bring with them a whole group of idealistic civilians. They do this by generously funding so-called non-governmental organisations, which can recruit the right kind of individuals for various projects and organise their stay in their war-torn destination.

In “Dispatches from the Kabul Café” one of these, journalist and foreign correspondent Heidi Kingstone, provides a collection of vignettes in which she turns a critical yet sympathetic eye on the people who have come to make Afghanistan and the world a better place, of which Ms. Kingstone herself was one. The period to which most of her stories and their cast of characters refer is 2007/2008 when Ms Kingstone was based in Kabul was one more hopeful (for some) than the present. But, with the benefit of hindsight, she includes events that happened after her departure. 

Ms Kingstone’s book is readable, ironic and sometimes sardonic without becoming downright cynical, and occasionally moving. The lives of people who seek adventure, career advancement, romance or (just) the opportunity to do good are often veteran NGOers moving from one of the world’s crises to another: Iraq, Darfur, East Timor, Afghanistan…. 

Next to a belief in meaningful work, there is a risk premium that not only heightens income but also adrenaline, testosterone and oxytocin. So amorous adventures, lust and sometimes even love can thrive among the expats ducking Taliban-rockets and attempting to avoid Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). But if the reader were tempted to give up Tinder and look for romance in the Afghan expat community rather the author has a warning in the form of a Local saying: The odds are good but the goods are odd; and so Ms. Kingstone finds herself holding a machine gun on a Nevada shooting range. 

Ms Kingstone is at her best when her stories are about the women in the Kabul, either  among the expat NGOers or  among the Afghan women they meet outside their work. Her eye for beauty and fashion in the most unlikely places and the gentle irony in her writing make there despatches not only readable but a worthwhile addition to the plethora of writing sparked by the West’s latest intervention in Afghanistan.

Heidi Kingstone

Friday 29 August 2014

Deux Jours Une Nuit (Two Days One Night), Film written and directed by Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne, starring Marion Cotillard, 10* out of 10

Filmed in a realistic documentary style, Deux Jours Une Nuit (Two Days One Night) is social drama at its best. The Dardennes' excellent screenplay shows the impact of a difficult moral dilemma on relationships at work, within the family and among friends. Marion Cotillard’s performance is brilliant.

In many a fairy-tale the hero has to accomplish a seemingly impossible task to win a cherished prize. In the process he learns about his own strength and weaknesses and finds out, who his true friends are.

At first sight the Dardenne-brothers’ latest film Two Days One Night is about as close to being a fairy tale as the fictional Captain Picard’s Starship Enterprise is from planet earth; but on closer inspection…

Sandra (Marion Cotillard), just recovered from a bout of depression, is ready to return to her workplace at SunWal a small enterprise producing solar panels in Wallonia, the economically declining French-speaking part of Belgium. SunWal’s owner/manager has decided that in order to survive in an extremely competitive market, he has to cut costs to improve productivity.  This being Europe, the boss believes in co-determination: workers on his shop floor will get some say in in this; he will determine the what it is they can decide on.  The question on which lets them organise a vote, is whether to let Sandra go and everyone else keep their annual bonus (of EUR 1000) or to keep Sandra on and everyone give up their annual bonus.  After a first vote that results in a clear majority for letting Sandra go turns out to have been irregularly influenced by the foreman, the boss agrees that the vote should be retaken. Although she still suffering from the after effects of her depression, Sandra, encouraged by her friends and urged on by her husband (Fabrizio Rongione), has the weekend to campaign on her own behalf before the vote will be retaken.  She is reluctant to do this, but knows that without her salary her young family will be in dire straits. As she canvases her 16 colleagues asking for each one’s support the social drama of the aftermath of the financial crisis in Europe and the dramatic side effects of globalization on people’s lives is brought down to a human and personal level that is genuinely moving.

Filmed in a realistic documentary style, Two Days One Night is social drama at its best. The Dardennes' excellent screenplay shows the impact of a difficult moral dilemma on relationships at work, within the family and among friends. The suspense as to the outcome contrasting with the understated style of direction and acting serves to amplify the strong emotional impact on the audience.  While maintaining their social realism throughout, the Dardenne-brothers manage to leave the audience with some optimism about the strength of the human spirit. Amid an excellent ensemble cast, Marion Cotillard shines with a brilliant performance as the struggling Sandra having to stand up for herself while fighting for her job, her family and her sanity. Highly recommended.

Thursday 28 August 2014

Lucy, Film written and directed by Luc Besson starring Scarlett Johansson, 6* out of 10

After a promising start Luc Besson’s Lucy, becomes an aimless and perhaps largely unintended parody of life, the universe and everything. Nevertheless, visual effects and Scarlett Johansson’s screen-presence make it very watchable.

Lucy, a street-smart young woman is being tricked by her new Scandinavian boyfriend to help him with the handover of a locked attache-case with unknown content at a 5* star hotel in Taipei. This and what follows in the next 30 minutes of this film could have been a promising and visually captivating start to an action classic.

Thereafter, while the action film part moves on, its main protagonist is under the influence of an accidentally absorbed overdose of a wonder drug that makes more and more of her brain capacity available to her - at a price. Lucy reverts physically to adapt to life in a state of nature as defined by the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Mentally she reaches incredible heights of academic performance while emotionally turning into a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger's classic "Terminator" without the cute Austrian accent and the muscled man-boobs.

Meanwhile, the film script loses itself in pseudo-scientific eccentricities and pseudo-philosophical speculations intended to give meaning to the impressive visual effects and Lucy’s 24-hour Odyssey. 

Nevertheless, what makes this movie still fun and quite watchable is Johansson’s screen presence and the visual effects linking the development of her character's brainpower to a short history of the world from Big Bang to our dissolution into disembodied ubiquity by means of a mobile phone and a USB-stick.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Hotel, Play written by Polly Stenham directed by Maria Aberg, National Theatre London, 9* out of 10

Writing, direction, acting and set are all of a high standard, melding into a surprisingly thrilling and action packed visit to the theatre.

Father (Robert), mother (Vivienne) together with teenage son (Ralph) and daughter (Frankie) arrive in their luxury garden-house cabin for a spontaneous family holiday in a Kenyan coastal resort. Vivienne (played by Hermione Gulliford) just had to resign as a Minister in the British Cabinet because husband Robert (Tom Beard) was caught by the notorious British scandal-press inappropriately flirting with a younger woman over the internet. Will they manage to work out their marital crisis in their holiday paradise? Meanwhile, Ralph (Tom Rhys-Harris) and Frankie (Shannon Tarbet) have to deal with a secret of their own. And then waiting for them, is Nala (Susan Wokoma) the resort’s chambermaid delivering the beautiful swan-shaped towel arrangement. Does she have designs on the buff teenager for whom she has just turned up the bed?

Polly Stenham delivers a one-act explosive action thriller. Excellent acting performances by a talented cast and the versatile set by Naomi Dawson make this play reach near action movie quality. The set is all the more remarkable as the play uses the temporary theatre structure that looks like a wooden version of Battersea Power Station. There’s violence, there’s blood; so this is certainly not a play for the very young or the faint hearted. Some of the political storyline will make those who do not religiously follow the Guardian’s political line on foreign policy wince.  But that is a small price to pay for the unexpected and ingeniously creative twists and turns brilliantly brought to stage by Maria Aberg’s dynamic direction. 

Writing, direction, acting and set are all of a high standard, melding into a surprisingly thrilling and action packed visit to the theatre.

Friday 20 June 2014

Economist Thomas Piketty speaking about his best-selling book “Capital in the 21st Century” at the London School of Economics, 8* out of 10

The French "rock-star economist" Thomas Piketty has been called the "new Karl Marx" by The Economist Newspaper. The Guardian newspaper called his lecture at the London School of Economics, the "hottest Economics ticket in town". Piketty's emphasis on wealth distribution has made him the target of many free-market capitalist commentators and newspapers. But I wonder what Margaret Thatcher would have made of his ideas on strengthening the middle class through the redistribution of wealth.

The French economics professor Thomas Piketty is on a worldwide lecture tour to promote his surprise best selling book (696 pages, no less) “Capital in the 21st Century”.

What is the book about? The Economist magazine summarises it in 4 paragraphs thus:

IT IS the economics book taking the world by storm. "Capital in the Twenty-First Century", written by the French economist Thomas Piketty, was published in French last year and in English in March of this year. The English version quickly became an unlikely bestseller, and it has prompted a broad and energetic debate on the book’s subject: the outlook for global inequality. Some reckon it heralds or may itself cause a pronounced shift in the focus of economic policy, toward distributional questions. This newspaper has hailed Mr Piketty as "the modern Marx" (Karl, that is). But what’s it all about?

"Capital" is built on more than a decade of research by Mr Piketty and a handful of other economists, detailing historical changes in the concentration of income and wealth. This pile of data allows Mr Piketty to sketch out the evolution of inequality since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the 18th and 19th centuries western European society was highly unequal. Private wealth dwarfed national income and was concentrated in the hands of the rich families who sat atop a relatively rigid class structure. This system persisted even as industrialisation slowly contributed to rising wages for workers. Only the chaos of the first and second world wars and the Depression disrupted this pattern. High taxes, inflation, bankruptcies, and the growth of sprawling welfare states caused wealth to shrink dramatically, and ushered in a period in which both income and wealth were distributed in relatively egalitarian fashion. But the shocks of the early 20th century have faded and wealth is now reasserting itself. On many measures, Mr Piketty reckons, the importance of wealth in modern economies is approaching levels last seen before the first world war.

From this history, Mr Piketty derives a grand theory of capital and inequality. As a general rule wealth grows faster than economic output, he explains, a concept he captures in the expression r > g (where r is the rate of return to wealth and g is the economic growth rate). Other things being equal, faster economic growth will diminish the importance of wealth in a society, whereas slower growth will increase it (and demographic change that slows global growth will make capital more dominant). But there are no natural forces pushing against the steady concentration of wealth. Only a burst of rapid growth (from technological progress or rising population) or government intervention can be counted on to keep economies from returning to the “patrimonial capitalism” that worried Karl Marx. Mr Piketty closes the book by recommending that governments step in now, by adopting a global tax on wealth, to prevent soaring inequality contributing to economic or political instability down the road.

The book has unsurprisingly attracted plenty of criticism. Some wonder whether Mr Piketty is right to think the future will look like the past. Theory argues that it should become ever harder to earn a good return on wealth the more there is of it. And today’s super-rich mostly come by their wealth through work, rather than via inheritance. Others argue that Mr Piketty’s policy recommendations are more ideologically than economically driven and could do more harm than good. But many of the sceptics nonetheless have kind words for the book’s contributions, in terms of data and analysis. Whether or not Mr Piketty succeeds in changing policy, he will have influenced the way thousands of readers and plenty of economists think about these issues.

Piketty has stirred controversy with the last part of his book in which he suggests a tax being imposed on net-wealth.  This and the word “Capital” in he title of his book, has stirred those who believe in non-interventionist doctrine of capitalism, to accuse him of all sorts of things: being a Marxist (which he is not), presenting false data (he is ready to debate and show that he has not), beating his ex-girlfriend the current French culture minister well known for her stormy love affairs (which he denies) and finally committing the ultimate crime in the eyes of Anglo-Saxon defenders of capitalism red in tooth and claw, that of being French (which he is).

Piketty is very presentable and speaks excellent English with a heavy French accent.  He explains his findings in a very clear presentation with low-tech slides, which is accessible to normal mortals not familiar with the intricacies of Economics.  From time to time he loosens things up with self-deprecating and witty remarks about himself, his subject and his opponents’ thinking.

He is ready to robustly defend the research he and his numerous collaborators produced about the development of income and wealth since the industrial revolution. At the same time, he is intensely relaxed about people who draw entirely different conclusions about the need for policy changes than he does. In his view, such differences of view are par for the course for social science research. Moreover, he says, that while social sciences can be very useful in explaining the past, the future remains unpredictable so that his or anybody else’s hunch about how things might develop are speculation and may be proved entirely wrong by unexpected events and developments. 

Piketty believes in Western style democracy and a capitalism moderated by some state intervention to prevent or correct developments that may constitute a danger for both.  Based on his findings he believes that capitalism, as we know it, tends to greater concentration of wealth at the top. If this development is allowed to continue unchecked, it risks undermining the existence of a middle class on which democracy, freedom and successful economic development under the capitalist system depend. He explains that it is with that reasoning that he makes the policy recommendations based on his findings.

I have read a few chapters of his book, looked at a number of newspaper articles on it, and have now seen the “rock-star economist” perform at the lectern in what the Guardian newspaper described as “the hottest economics ticket in town”. My conclusion is that Piketty has done something very useful in being one of the first to do empirical research on the development of wealth and income since the industrial revolution in a large number of countries. Rather than just theorising about wealth, researchers and policy-makers now have a lot of data to draw on. Piketty is a creative researcher, also very good at presenting and explaining his data in plain English. The heavy French accent is not there when you read the book and does not detract from his presentation when he speaks. Thomas Piketty has his views on politics, but contrary to famous Nobel prize winning economists like Milton Friedman or Paul Krugman he is no ideologue or polemicist, keen on being a major influencer of political decisions, but primarily a researcher. He is happy to share his political views and make policy recommendations; but they are not where his main interests lie.

Finally, I cannot help but wonder what Margaret Thatcher would have made of Piketty’s research and ideas.  After all, her most revolutionary policy was to turn thousands of council house tenants into home owners, probably the most significant transfer of “capital” from the state to low-income, low-wealth households, giving them a unique opportunity to own and build some capital of their own and join the ranks of the middle-class.  Could it be that Margaret Thatcher was an instinctive progressive fighter for boosting the ranks of the “capital-owning” middle class, an idea very dear to Thomas Piketty’s heart?