The Oscars: the good, the bad and the ugly


In my opinion of course….

The good:

  • Spotlight winning Best Picture. It gets called boring but what it is actually doing is getting you to progressively rediscover the horror of clerical sexual abuse. It treats the subject like Jaws does the shark. It’s only at the end you see the full scale of the monster and that makes it all the more terrifying.
  • Brie Larson winning Best Actress. Blanchet and Ronan were great but Larson was better.
  • Mark Rylance winning Best Supporting Actor. There was a head of steam behind Stallone and he undoubtedly did good work in Creed. But Rylance was in another class – geddit? It’s a boxing metaphor and Creed is ….fine I’ll stop – and displays an altogether different level of craft. Stallone is playing an iconic character who’s been on screen for decades and gets to act out a lot of big schlocky set pieces of By contrast, Rylance is basically playing a cipher yet still radiates sadness and courage.
  • Inside Out winning Best Animated Feature. Deserved to win this (and best picture but there you go).
  • Amy for Best Documentary.

The bad:

  • Leonardo DiCaprio winning Best Picture. It was his turn apparently. Whatever the fuck that means. The praise for his performance tends to major on the ordeal it was to deliver not on the quality of the result, which is a bit one note. Ironically, in attempting to make amends for overlooking DiCaprio’s previous work in favour of apparently inferior efforts, the Academy has overlooked Fassbender in favour of an inferior performance from DiCaprio.
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu as Best Director. Has the guy found a magic lamp and wished to win best director and best picture every time he makes a film. At least Birdman was on the right side of the good/bad line – which couldn’t be said of Boyhood – but the Revanant was a drag.
  • Oh and continuing the anti-Revanant theme, I’d have given cinematography to Sicario. The visuals were clearly the Revanant’s strong suit but those in Sicario were something else.
  • The Big Short winning Best Adapted Screenplay is particularly unjust as the film’s main problem was that too little was done to adapt it from page to screen. The script for the Martian was a masterpiece and should have won.

The ugly:

  • The lack of diversity, of course.
  • Sam Smith’s the Writing on the Wall from Spectre winning Best Song. Now this was far from the category’s low point – they found a full slate of nominees which is not a given. But the winner is terrible. It sounds like the pub karaoke version of a Bond theme song, sung by someone who’s so wasted they can’t help slurring. It shouldn’t be possible to be simultaneously insipid and over the top but the Writing on the Wall Something really needs to be done with this category. Perhaps look beyond Hollywood for nominees. Or just scrap it.

Note: I updated the post about an hour after publication to include the point about cinematography.

Note 2: And a year later to include some missing words!

Cable from Korea #1: the world’s largest church

A 150,000 people attend this one church in Seoul. This morning, I was one of them.

2016-02-28 10.58.07

Three years ago, I wrote a post about the Yoido Full Church, which is probably the largest church in the world. I quoted the Economist reporting that:

It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

I wrote about it because I was doing a series on Pentecostalism of which Yoido is a rather spectacular example. It was not somewhere I anticipated ever visiting. But this morning I did.

The author of that Economist piece was not exaggerating as far as the logistics go. The manager at my hostel told me she avoids driving near the church on Sunday mornings because the traffic is so bad. Despite the challenges posed by its size, Yoido makes a compelling argument for economies of scale. It is a very slick operation. I arrived and was immediately greeted by one of their team of ushers specifically tasked with greeting foreigners, I was then passed along a conveyor belt of team members to a special section for worshipers from overseas and invited to a special post-service meeting for non-Koreans. Most impressively, I was given a headset so I could listen to a simultaneous translation of the service.

The church itself is a about the size of a concert hall. Indeed both its scale and design, reminded me of the Barbican Centre. The comparison seemed apt as it has its own orchestra and a choir of professional quality singers that’s larger than most congregations. It’s not the best church music I’ve heard. It lacked the richness and otherworldliness of say an English Cathedral Choir. But that’s delivered to a couple of hundred people at a time. This needed to reach thousands upon thousands of people and be good. And that consistency extended to the other aspects of the service, which were engaging even in translation.

Initially the proceedings appeared more mellow than I was expecting. There were traditional hymns rather than worship songs. And while the preaching was on the more interactive end of the scale – there were a lot of things we were supposed to call out – it was also more dignified than many evangelical services I’d been to before. But I’d misread what was happening. I’m used to churches that are literally and figuratively amateurish: the people running them generally don’t have the skills or the resources to produce an emotional reaction on cue. The team at Yoido do. They could therefore let a state of fervour gradually develop. And by the end, prayers were accompanied by much of the congregation rocking backwards and forwards.

In the world but of Korea

Yoido is unmistakably Korean in ways that go beyond the obvious. The narrative it tells us about faith is very tied up with the country’s recent history. Indeed Yoidi itself, a church that dragged itself from a tent outside a US army camp to a being a feature of one of the world’s great cities,  functions as a good metaphor for that history. And the apocalyptic and Manichean overtones of evangelical theology take on a new resonance when you are twenty miles from the DMZ. My impression based on an admittedly short stay so far is that South Koreans think about their belligerent northern neighbours less than outsiders imagine. But Yoidi really does major on the topic: prayers about or for the country were said no less than four times. When Christians in most countries worry that militant atheists are attempting to destroy their way of life that’s merely paranoia but in Korea it’s indisputably true and that seems to have seeped into the character of at least some of its Christianity.

Despite its emphatic Koreaness, Yoido is probably the most cosmopolitan church I’ve ever attended. As I’ve mentioned already, there are impressive efforts to welcome worshipers from overseas. It also seems to put a lot of emphasis on overseas evangelism: the church apparently has over 700 missions abroad at the current moment. And the congregation was regaled with tales of how its pastors were spreading the gospel around the world. It is presumably with the intention to assist them in that endeavour that the church runs English classes. Most remarkably the sermon at the service I attended was delivered in English by the National Director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. The world’s largest church apparently takes the world as its diocese.

My reservations

As impressed as I was by Yoido, I concluded that even if I lived in Seoul I would be unlikely to attend it regularly. I couldn’t warm to its bombast nor to the didactic nature of its message. I also have a particular aversion to faith healing, which featured prominently in the service. I fear that a) it risks putting people off seeking proper medical help, b) puts a decidedly un-protestant emphasis on the need for someone to act as an intermediary between god and ordinary Christians, and c) insults God by suggesting he lets people suffer illness until somebody casts the right spell. My prejudices about it weren’t helped by a video we were shown this morning of a previously lame woman in the Cote D’Ivoire miraculously walking without crutches after being prayed for by one of the church’s pastors. The problem is that she didn’t walk so much as stagger forward weakly for two or three paces in exactly the way you’d imagine someone would if they believed they’d been cured but hadn’t. And even to someone poorly versed in Korean politics the way the church steers it congregation towards supporting conservative candidates was pretty blatant. President Park Geun-Hye was prayed for by name. It was specifically flagged up that one of her party’s representatives in the National Assembly was in attendance this morning. And the congregations attention was drawn to an apparently troubling piece of legislation before the National Assembly.*

Lessons for the endangered species known as the western protestant

However, what I’ve been mulling the most since I left was something rather different: the age of the congregation. The reason for this is to do with something called the ‘secularisation hypothesis’. Essentially this says that as societies modernise that they will tend to become less religious. This has been given credence by falling church attendance in Europe and North America. But a big growth in church membership in the developing world has more than offset this, suggesting that maybe secularisation is basically a western phenomenon. Booming churches in Korea seemed like an example of this. But I recently read Daniel Tudor’s Korea: the Impossible Country, which briefly notes that young Koreans are actually less likely to attend church than their parents. Yoidi would seem to support this. The people in attendance were not as geriatric as those at a typical western church. Nonetheless, they clearly skewed towards the upper end of middle aged. That might indicate that the secularisation hypothesis needs modifying rather than discarding. Maybe it is that the disruptions and uncertainties of industrialisation and urbanisation drive people into church – the Victorian era was after all a highpoint of church attendance in the UK – and when these abate so does churchgoing. If that’s what is happening in Korea then it may well be that in a few decades time the booming churches in China, Nigeria and the like will start shrinking.

It is tempting as it is for stale churches in the West to look at places like Yoido and see a model they should emulate. But that’s probably not going to work. Christians in Europe and North America probably need to find their own solutions rather than trying to assemble flatpack models from other parts of the world.


*In the interests of transparency, I should note that my headset began glitching at the point this was discussed. I still think I caught the general gist but not what the actual legislation was.

Ranking the Best Picture nominees

The Oscars are this Sunday. While we wait for that, here’s the opinion that really matters: mine.


#8 The Revenant

The setting: The uncolonised lands of the American Midwest circa 1823.

The story: A hunter (Leonardo DiCaprio) is doubled crossed by another member of his party (Tom Hardy) who murders his son and leaves him for dead. He struggles to survive so he can take his revenge.

The case for it winning: It’s a gorgeous film showing some of the most epic landscapes on earth. It totally captures the brutality of its time and place. Hardy’s performance is stellar. And the hardships DiCaprio endured for this film are already legendary.

The case against it winning: It’s striking that the praise for DiCaprio’s work in this film tends to focus on the hypothermia enduring and bison liver chomping inputs rather than the eventual output – which is good rather than great. The film’s gestures towards mystical themes feel superfluous. It’s probably too long and as a result becomes, dare I say it, a bit boring.


#7 The Big Short

The setting: the fools paradise before the 2008 crash

The story: Renegade investors discover that supposedly indestructible mortgage backed securities are in fact junk, and indeed threaten the global economy.

The case for it winning: It does a good job telling the story – well part of the story – of the financial collapse. There are some neat performances and it’s inventive in how it makes some of the more arcane details comprehensible.

The case against it winning: A lot of that inventiveness is covering for the fact that a lot of the basics have been fumbled. In particular, more needed to be done to adapt the structure of the book, which works on the page but is a mess on the screen. There are too many scenes that serve a political rather than dramatic purpose. And disappointingly for a film so interested in the details of the crash, its overall diagnosis is rather shallow. It is the kind of the film that believes the fact of bankers visiting strip clubs somehow explains the dysfunction of financial markets.


#6 Bridge of Spies

The setting: New York and Berlin during the early years of the Cold War

The story: An insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) finds himself roped into first defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then negotiating for him to be swapped for a captured American pilot.

The case for it winning: Spielberg knows how to tell a story and this is a good one. Hanks is on good form and Rylance is better still.

The case against it winning: It’s good but it’s not among Spielberg’s best work. It is more efficient than outstanding. Nothing really elevates it to greatness. Its presence on this list probably says more about how much Academy members like Spielberg and Hanks than the quality of this film.


#5 Brooklyn

The setting: the 1950s. The characters in Brooklyn probably watched the news report the stuff from Bridge of Spies.

The story: A young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to New York in search of work and finds herself torn between a new life there and her home.

The case for it winning: Mostly Ronan who gives a stellar performance. It’s also admirably warm hearted and convivial. And the use of costume to tell the story is impressive.

The case against it winning: Like Bridge of Spies, pretty much everything in Brooklyn is good but – Ronan aside – nothing is really great. A commendable film but certainly not the best of the year.


#4 Mad Max: Fury Road

The setting: a dystopian hellscape where the only good thing that remains are spectacular views of the Namibian desert.

The story: Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) try to get the hareem of a brutal warlord to a land where they will be safe.

The case for it winning: This manages nearly everything that the Revenant did but does it with masses more verve. The world Miller builds is appropriately bonkers. It looks incredible and the action is awe inspiring. Theron should have been nominated for best actress and the feminist themes are admirable.

The case against it winning: The plot is a bit thin. Hardy is a strangely absent lead. The messaging can be a bit ‘on the nose’. And I can’t shake the impression that it’s more overwhelming than good.


#3 Room

The setting: There’s a clue in the title.

The story: A young woman (Brie Lawson) is abducted and held in captivity for years. Under these less than ideal conditions she tries to raise a young son (Jacob Tremblay) and mount an escape.

The case for it winning: The emotional power of this film is enormous. It is by turns shocking, disgusting, terrifying, miserable, inspiring and joyful. It is dark without being morbid or sickly which is an achievement. Larson should win Best Actress and Tremblay delivers some of the best child acting ever.

#2 The Martian

The setting: Mars, NASA and space.

The story: An astronaut (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars and has to improvise his way to survival.

The case for it winning: It’s by far the most entertaining nominee. It’s funny and exciting. It manages the unusual combination of being a one hander for large sections but also building a great ensemble cast.

#1 Spotlight

The setting: Boston in 2001

The story: A team of journalists investigate the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clerical sexual abuse

The case for it winning: The question of how so many people allowed themselves to be complicit in these crimes for so long is one that deserves examining. Spotlight does that in a way that is understated and respectful of the victims while at the same time being riveting and insightful.

Make China great again!


Why Xi Jinping would vote for a president Trump

America’s political culture can be befuddling even for someone like me who hails from another English speaking democracy. Imagine how baffling it must seem to someone who’s reference point is China. A twitter account called the Relevant Organs, which parodies the Communist Party’s English language propoganda, had fun with this notion during one of the Republican debates. The fictional official running the account supposedly struggled to understand the proceedings:

One can only imagine what this official would have made of the ‘Orange defendant’ saying in an earlier debate that:

“The TPP is a horrible deal, It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that’s designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.”

The Trans Pacific Partnership, to give it its full name, is a free trade deal recently signed by the US and 11 other countries. Trump’s assertion was strange because as Senator Rand Paul promptly pointed out, China wasn’t one of those 11 countries and is unlikely ever to qualify to join. Indeed, and this is what would have made Trump’s point so confusing for Chinese viewer, the deal is supposed to exclude rather than include rather China. Believing that is not Chinese paranoia. When TPP was signed Bloomberg reported:

A 12-nation Pacific trade deal strengthens President Barack Obama’s hand in his strategic pivot toward Asia and challenges China to accept U.S.-backed rules for doing business. A trading bloc stretching from Chile to Japan, with the U.S. at the economic center, bolsters Obama’s effort to counter growing Chinese military and economic influence in the Pacific.

TPP’s failure – which would be assured if Trump ever became president – would actually be a big win for China both economically and geo-politically.

I point up this incident to highlight a major problem with Trump’s policy proposals. He presents them as a sign of his toughness and his determination that America should ‘win’. Yet they’d almost certainly weaken America’s position.

To see why place yourself in the position of a Chinese observer of America considerably more sophisticated than our fictional debate watching official: Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Foreign policy is important to you. Once upon a time, the rule of the Party was legitimised by Maoist ideology but you gave up on that decades ago; then it was the astonishing improvements in living standards the people were seeing and for which the Party took credit but now those seem to be tapering off; so now he will be hoping that nationalism might do the job. If you can show them the Party has – to coin a phrase – ‘made China great again’ then they’ll feel good about that and won’t start asking for any pesky democracy.

You’re well on its way to achieving that objective. Gone are the days of Western powers waging wars to make the Chinese buy opium or of Japanese soldiers marauding round the country commiting every human rights abuse imaginable. And in the near future – recent troubles notwithstanding – China should become the world’s largest economy  and that will eventually pay for the most powerful military.

Nonetheless, you still worry about the US. Not that you have anything against the place; your daughter went to Harvard! But history has taught you not to trust them. All the way back to the 19th century despite their anti-imperial rhetoric they followed the lead of the European nations and took part in the exploitative unequal treaties. They’ve been arming the rebel holdouts in Taiwan for decades. And moves like TPP give you every indication that they intend to continue undermining your country for a while longer.

Given the shifting balance of power, you know they can no longer achieve that alone. They need the co-operation of your neighbours. Unfortunately, they have a lot of scope to do that. Despite all that spending on Confucius Institutes, most people in the world still have more admiration and trust for American liberalism than Chinese autocracy. That’s especially true of your neighbours who regard you as an overbearing bully. So what you really need is an undiplomatic oaf to come along and torpedo America’s relations with these potential allies. Well cometh the hour, cometh the man!

The aforementioned oaf is not an unknown quantity in the People’s Republic. He was an executive producer for a Chinese version of the Apprentice and the original American version has fans in China. And his books have been translated into Chinese. And in a country with such a rapidly growing economy entrepreneurs are a revered group. To quote one of Xi’s most important predecessors: “to get rich is glorious“.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping is unlikely to be impressed by Trump. His boorish sexism and racism probably won’t bother Xi as much as it does most westerners; despite the CCP’s supposed commitment to equality and brotherhood, the niceties of political correctness have never really caught on in China. Still even for the head of a regime that regularly equates Islam and terrorism, banning all Muslims will seem a bit much. But what will be really shocking to someone like Xi is that an individual without a background in public administration might be considered a fit person to be president. The Chinese system, in theory at least, is a meritocracy that owes more to Confucianism than communism. Entrance to the civil service is by competitive exam and promotion is – in theory at least -based on performance. In order to be allowed to run a big city you must first prove yourself running a small one. Hence in order to reach a position like Xi’s you need to have a great deal of experience. The possibility that a newcomer with a flair for showmanship could be made president just he gets the most votes, confirms all your prejudices about democracy.

And Xi can already see the mistakes Trump is likely to make. The rejection of TPP would undermine US credibility with regards to the territorial disputes over the South China Sea. All of the countries that claim islands within that space – Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – were signatories to TPP. If Washington proves unreliable on trade, then why would these countries expect it to back them up militarily? Without a superpower in their corner they are going to be much less assertive in challenging Beijing, which would conversely then feel able to be more assertive. It might well begin building more artificial islands and deploy larger forces to the islands it already has. The US would then be faced with a China able to lock them out of the South China Sea altogether, which is precisely what American policy up to this point has been geared towards avoiding.

That turn of events would certainly perturb Tokyo and Seoul. However, what would really concern them are the noises Trump is making about America’s treaty commitments to defend their countries. Essentially, Trump wants them to contribute to the cost of keeping American forces in the region – which they already do – and to have a reciprocal requirement to defend the US. Now given his self-image as the master deal maker, he would contend that he’d make Japan and Korea agree to his demands. But there are practical difficulties he may not be able to bluster past. There are lobbies in both countries that dislike the presense of American soldiers and would make it hard for their governments to make concessions. And Japan’s pacifist constitution – which was written by the US – would make things complicated. And even if Trump could bring this shift about, Japan and Korea would be left smarting and resentful and less likely to co-operate on other matters.

Even on the other side of Asia, Trump would likely push countries towards China. He subscribes to the conventional Republic stance on Iran: that he would back out of the nuclear deal. That would suit China fine. If it is the US turns its back on a perfectly viable deal then China will feel no need to reimpose sanctions. That will allow it to form trade links with Iran and thereby gain second hand influence in the Middle East.


Trump might well respond that this wouldn’t matter because as president he would put China in its place and leave these allies and potential allies with nowhere to turn but the US. The meat of this appears to be his intention to slap tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the US in retaliation for China’s manipulation of its currency. Essentially what Trump and others allege is that China has artificially lowered the value of the Renminbi to make its exports cheaper than they otherwise would be. There are a number of problems with this. For starters, it’s not true. China has been actively trying to stop the Renminbi depreciating and its one of the few currencies of emerging markets not to have fallen in value recently. And tariffs are a weapon that launches backwards as well as forward. Slapping them on Chinese goods would hurt American consumers as well as Chinese producers. Indeed, while reducing Chinese exports to the US would have a negative impact on firms that exports it wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster for their economy overall. One of its major problems, which Xi appears to be trying to rectify, is that the economy relies too heavily on selling goods abroad rather than at home. American tariffs that depressed exports might actually help achieve this objective. So what Trump is proposing is essentially to threaten Beijing into stopping something it’s not doing in the first place with a policy which if enacted would cause more harm to the US than China. And by utilising that weapon to combat a phantom threat, he does not have it available to retaliate against say a cyberattack.

Trump’s misreading of the situation vis a vis America’s relationship with China arises from two fundamental problems. Both of them can be gleamed in his claim that:

America doesn’t win anymore… nothing works in our country. If I am elected president we will win again.


Such a sweeping claim is unlikely to right in all circumstances and buying into it will obscure the cases where it isn’t. Clearly there are aspects of US foreign policy in Asia that aren’t working. For example, North Korea is resolutely not being denuclearised, quite the opposite in fact. But plenty of what the US is doing to maintain a geopolitical balance with China seems to be working. In particular, it does seem to be preserving and expanding its network of allies in the region. Consider the following for evidence of this:

Screenshot (10)

That’s not enough to stop a shift in power from the US to China but remember that power is a relative concept. America can lose it not through its own failure but as a result of the success of others. Indeed, it would be surprising if China did not become more powerful in the wake of shirking off the self-imposed handicap of a centrally planned economy. Washington can find better or worse ways to deal with China’s rise but that ascent does not necessarily indicate that American policy isn’t working.

Among the worst ways of dealing with the situation would be to alienate allies. Trump’s focus on relentless ‘winning’ seems misplaced with regards to geopolitics. Is it desirable to ‘defeat’ your friends? If President Trump was to make losers out of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and even Iran that wouldn’t make America the winner. The beneficiary would be China. Rather than facing a co-ordinated effort to prevent it asserting it dominating its neighbours, it would face a variety of actors none of whom would be strong enough to challenge it and many of whom would doubt it was worth it anymore. That would substantially increase China’s options and reduce America’s. So if Xi Jinping had a vote in the Republican primaries, he’d probably cast it for Trump.


Caveat: The post above has taken it as an axiomatic that the US should see China’s rise as a threat and seek to counter it. There’s a real debate to be had about that. Nonetheless, Trump seems to percieve China as a menace and I have chosen to critique his proposals on their own terms.

Livetweeting the General Election review

“Our current problem is not technical or organisational but that the party lacks a sense of overarching purpose”

While other people worry about the EU negotiations, Harper Lee passing or you know having a job, I spent this afternoon burrowing into the review of the 2015 General Election campaign by the Lib Dem’s Campaigns and Communications Committee. A cynic might suggest I was procrastinating from packing for a move to another country!

I tweeted as I went along:

I wrote my own post-mortem back in June in case you are interested.

In praise of Samantha Bee


Her new show is loud, brash and the funniest satire out there.

Fans of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Colbert Report have been in something of a holding pattern for the past few months. Since Stewart retired and Colbert went off to host the Late Show there’s been something of a void.

Trevor Noah is an able comedian and custodian for the Daily Show. However, something has undoubtedly been lost since Stewart’s departure. Noah treats American politics as a comedy, whereas his predecessor appreciated it was a tragedy. Stewart’s humour was propelled by exasperation at a news media that was variously crass, disingenous and trivialising. That sense of mission gave his work a richness and a weight that Noah has failed to replicate. Indeed, at times the younger man has seemed in danger of succumbing to that triviality. I’m of course being unfair because I’m spoiled by American satire. Look at Russell Howard or whichever moron the BBC is currently hoping will engage apathetic young people in polictics and you realise how smart and insightful Noah is. But he still seems like a downgrade into glibness for the Daily Show.

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is easier to commend enthusiastically. It’s simultaneously funny and earnest which is not an easy combination to pull off. But it’s essentially using comedy as a vehicle to get us to watch deep dives into policy questions and social issues. Highlighting injustice and making you laugh is a worthy task. But it compliments the Daily Show of yore rather than substituting for it. We still need someone to convince us that despite the insanity of the current news cycle there are sane voices out there.

On the evidence of her first episodes as a host of Full Frontal, Samantha Bee seems well equipped for that job. Like Stewart she is indignant at what she’s seeing on the news but she doesn’t dilute that anger with sadness. According to Bee, Trump is a “sentient caps-lock button” and Cruz “has stage 4 cancer of the personality”. Her persona is essentially that of someone perpetually grappling with the question “WTF?” – which just at the moment seems stupendously reasonable.

There’s an intensity to her show that’s lacking from the more detached work Oliver and Noah do. They mostly elicit chuckles but she regularly gets gut punch laughs.

It’s also worth flagging up that she’s the only female host of a late night show. And she fills that role unapologetically. Female comedians are often required to make themselves ‘acceptable’ by cultivating the impression they are either either kooky, sultry or motherly. Bee avoids all of these archetypes.

That’s going to be fun to watch as Clinton runs for president. The former New York Senator is a frequent victim of the double standard whereby a woman who’s forceful and direct is dismissed as shrill. Unlike Clinton, Bee has the freedom to directly tackle such crap:

I suspect that misogynists are going to be the butt of many of the show’s best jokes:

I look forward to it.




Poverty is about economics not morality

A large chunk of the left/right political debate comes down to a single question: why are the poor, poor? The right-wing narrative locates the causes in the behaviour of those who fall into poverty. They allegedly prefer welfare to work, lack self-restraint, disdain stable families and expect others to fix their problems. The left’s alternative explanation is that these people do not work because there isn’t enough work available for them.

Writing for the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog, Professor Glen Bramley points to some new research suggesting that the second explanation is the more plausible:

The Hard Edges study shines a new and striking light on this long-running standoff. The report focusses on a group who may be considered the ‘poster-boys’ (they are mainly male, although not that young), for the moral/behavioural account, a group who sit on the ‘Hard Edges’ of society and social service provision. It attempts to provide the first comprehensive profile of adults suffering from ‘Severe and Multiple Disadvantage’ (SMD), namely combinations of homelessness, chronic offending and substance misuse. The study covers England, drawing on and triangulating evidence from national administrative systems and some targeted as well as more general surveys.

This group are only a small subset of the poor population (around a quarter of a million working age adults, or 4 per cent of the 7 million living in relative low income poverty). Thus, it is quite wrong to portray this as a major, dominant cause of poverty. But, with their complex needs and problems, this group generate quite high levels of financial and social costs on society, while themselves experiencing very poor outcomes and quality of life.

But the really interesting finding, from the viewpoint of the eternal social policy debate, is what emerges from the geographical crunching of the numbers. All three independent administrative datasets yield the same conclusion about the prevalence of severe and multiple disadvantage by local authority area. The top 10 areas are –wait for it – Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Rochdale, Manchester, Hull, Bournemouth, Nottingham, Stoke, Newcastle. With one exception, it is a roll-call of northern urban and industrial towns, the major sites of de-industrialisation and the highest concentrations of low income poverty. The bottom ten are southern affluent commuter suburbs and semi-rural areas – Wokingham, Central Bedfordshire, South Gloucestershire, Windsor & Maidenhead, East Riding, Buckinghamshire, Harrow, Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey, West Berkshire.  This is a clear signal, not just a ghostly image on a cartographic Turin shroud; the stigmata of structural material poverty show through quite clearly, and are confirmed by statistical analysis.

So, if structure matters even for the groups most stigmatised for their personal reprehensible moral and behavioural degeneracy, how much more influential must it be for the generality of poor people? A working age adult in Middlesbrough is ten times more likely than one in Central Bedfordshire to be in our ‘SMD2/3’ category (experiencing two or more of homelessness, substance misuse and/or offending). This evidence strongly suggests that persistent and widespread material poverty linked to structural labour market weakness generates processes which lead to high levels of disadvantage. They say that ‘correlation does not prove causation’, but in this case reverse causation – i.e. the notion that addiction problems brought about the deindustrialisation of northern towns and cities – is not a serious proposition.

Looking forward to Daredevil season 2

I loved the first season of Daredevil – the Marvel/Netflix team up about Matt Murdoch, the blind lawyer who becomes a costumed hero defending his New York neighbourhood. When I reviewed it, I said:

A show that’s nastier, more demanding and frankly rather brutal winds up being just about the most satisfying thing Marvel has done…

So I’m excited about the upcoming second series. For a couple of months, Netflix have been taunting fans with teasers that only gave us crumbs of new material. But today we went from glimpses to a decent look at the season 2.

There’s a new trailer out and I was impressed. Obviously it’s possible to make a good trailer from a bad show. But, what this one shows is encouraging.

It seems like Daredevil is going to build on the strengths of the first season without simply replicating it. It’s staying intense: the trailer starts with hints of a murdered family and continues in that vein. That’s reflected in a gothic tone: there are skulls, crucixes and dingy lighting galore. And we get another villain whose conviction they are actually the hero is given believable depth. But the divide between Daredevil and the Punisher is very different from that between him and Fisk. It’s essentially a battle of vigilantes. And it looks like that will be used ask whether Murdoch’s resolute adherance to his personal moral code excuses his operating outside the law of the land.

My only real fear at this point is that taking on a villain whose a lone wolf rather than the head of a nefarious organisation may not stretch out to 13 episodes. That was what tanked the other Netflix/Marvel collaboaration: Jessica Jones. But there may well be a way round that especially if Elektra’s prescense provides a meaty subplot. So on balance, count me down as an optimist.


Churchill made a great argument against leaving the EU

And he did it in 1934.


Debates about Britain and Europe are not new. Indeed, they long predate the creation of the EU.

In many ways – almost all of them depressing – Europe in 1934 resembles Europe now. There were severe economic problems brought on by a misguided attempt to maintain a transnational currency. And this was accompanied by a severe swing towards extremist ideologies and an upsurge in political violence.

Not surprisingly, many Brits concluded that they wanted nothing to do with this mess. Winston Churchill wasn’t one of them. In a speech broadcast on BBC radio, he explained:

There are those who say: Let us ignore the Continent of Europe. Let us leave it with its hatreds and armaments to stew in its own juice, to fight out its own quarrels. Let us turn our backs upon this alarming scene. Let us fix our gaze across the ocean and lead our own life in the midst of our peace-loving dominions and empire. There is much to be said for this plan if only we could unfasten the British islands from their rock foundations and could tow them 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and anchor them safely upon the smiling coasts of Canada. I have not heard of any way in which this could be done. No engineer has come forward with any scheme; even our best scientists are dumb. It would certainly in any case take a long time. Have we got a long time? At present we lie within a few minutes’ striking distance of the French, Dutch and Belgian coasts, and within a few hours of the great aerodromes of Central Europe. We are even within cannon shot of the Continent. Is it prudent? Is it possible, however we might desire it, to turn our backs upon Europe and ignore whatever may happen there. Everyone can judge this question for himself. And everyone ought to make up his mind, or her mind, about it, without delay. It lies at the heart of our problem.

Clearly this speech does not directly address the question Britain will shortly hold a referendum on. Churchill was focused on military issues rather than the social and economic ones that will be the focus of the campaign. And it is impossible to say with certainty what he would have made of an institution that did not emerge until after his death. He did call for a ‘United States of Europe‘ but it’s unclear what precisely he meant by that and what part Britain should play in it.

Nonetheless, what he identifies as “the heart of our problem” remains very relevant. A strand of Conservatism longs for us to become the 51st state. Another is nostalgic for deeper links with the Commonwealth. And there are those on both left and right who despise globalisation in its entirety and hope for isolation. Each of these notions is nullified by inconvenient facts of geography that no political decision is able to change.

Whether the British public vote to leave or remain, we will still be an island separated from the European continent by a channel so thin that it is sometimes possible to see across it with the naked eye. And along the border between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland there is no gap at all, one can walk from the United Kingdom into another EU member state. Therefore, the most convenient locations to which to send our exports and receive imports from will always be in Europe. The same applies to migrants coming from and going out of this country. This near inevitable flow of people, money and objects between Britain and Europe means that whatever the outcome of the referendum, decisions made within the EU will still impact the UK. What is at stake is whether they are made with our input or not.

So while it’s probably a mistake for either side in the referendum to claim Churchill as a supporter, there are nonetheless clear Churchillian arguments for remaining. Britain’s entry, with his support, into both World Wars arose in large part from a conviction that what happens in Europe matters to Britain. It would be folly to imagine that this has changed. One fundamental point of continuity between 1934 and 2016 is that we still live on an island rather than a boat.

Too smug by half

Deadpool‘s fundamental flaw is that it is inordinately pleased with itself. It is so excited about being the superhero film that makes dirty jokes and includes bloody violence, that it has lost sight of the basics. Character, plot and action are crushed under a heap of severed limbs and gags about wanking.

A puerile sensibility is grafted onto what is otherwise a rather generic superhero adventure. It occasionally acknowledges this. For example, the title sequence dispenses with the names of the cast and instead lists the archetypes they represent like “a hot chick”, “a CGI character” and “a British villain”. Now that’s reasonably funny while it lasts but it’s a single moment of a film that lasts nearly two hours. Contrary to what the writers seem to believe it doesn’t grant them absolution for creating characters so devoid of depth or imagination. They might demur that they’re do something imaginative by dispensing with the traditional conventions of heroics that permeate comic book adaptations. But I would counter demur that this has in fact been done plenty of times before. It’s the central point of Watchmen, a major theme in the Nolan batman themes and something which even Marvel movies explore. There are some characters you would not usually find in a superhero film but they are just tropes like ‘angelic hooker’ that are lifted from other genres.

The action sequences are particularly disappointing. They are mostly the kind of juddery mess that is de rigueur in Hollywood at the moment. But it’s not clear why it is in Deadpool. Incredibly quick cuts between angles may make fights illegible but keep American censors happy. It gives the audience the impression they are seeing blows that are never actually shown. That helps films stay within the guidelines for a 12A. But given that Deadpool was going to be an R on account of its gore and general profanity, I’m not clear why they bothered shooting the violence in this annoying way. When the cinematography occasionally departs from this norm it’s for shots like the one in the trailer where three goons are killed with a single bullet. These are cartoonish in all the wrong ways. It also doesn’t help that the (anti-)hero is basically indestructible, which considerably lowers the stakes of even the best action sequences.

Which is not to say Deadpool has a no redeeming features. It makes so many jokes that, notwithstanding the fact that a large percentage are cheap, nasty and unimaginative, it still generates plenty of laughs. Ed Skrein brings some scenery chewing verve to his part. He may be playing a generic Marvel villain but he does at least commit in a way that the ageing thesps usually cast in such roles don’t. And it mercifully keeps its run time below two hours.

I’d be more inclined to look on the brightside were it a less impressed by itself. Everyone involved seems to think that a determination to work a diverse range of sex acts into jokes makes them comic geniuses. The constant smirking and winking about how clever something so stupid and vapid is becomes tiresome. And there’s no excuse for its casual sexism. If you are 14, you have an excuse to be impressed by this stuff. Nobody else does including most especially the people who made it.

Verdict: 4/10 – I understand the appeal but if you succumb to it then I will think less of you for it.