Thursday, 29 December 2016

Is Russia in Charge Right Now?

So, Vladimir Putin has announced a Syrian Ceasefire.  Was the United States anywhere near that negotiation table?  No.  The UK? Not even remotely so.  France? (What, who?)  No, Russia and Turkey have apparently ground down their enemies and worked together to negotiate a ceasefire in Syria while the West stares impotently on.

Am I the only one who feels like he’s witnessing a changing of the guard?  Is Russia in charge right now?  In a potential close relationship between the United States and Russia, would this be a marriage of equals or the capitulation of a superpower to a re-emerging one?

I have the distinct fear that President-elect Trump’s lack of experience will play into the superior scheming hands of the Russian strongman.  I don’t know Mr. Putin; I can’t claim to understand his deeper motivations or intentions for Europe, the Middle East or the world.  I just know that he appears to be built in the mold of dictators past; strong, awe-inspiring to an extent, unassailable and well-loved by a solid cross-section of his people.  On the surface there appears to be much to admire, but not far beneath there seems to lurk the threat of something more sinister.  Real, or imagined?  Who knows?

I remember an article about 20 years ago in Time Magazine which started something like this: “America rules the world, and that’s good.  Who would you rather have in charge? China…?”  Well, Donald Trump ran a campaign to “make America great again.”  With Europe glancing nervously at its long-time ally, uncertain of what the future brings and where its true ideological allegiance will lie,  with a resurgent – no – dominant Russia strutting the world stage and reshaping the global conflict landscape, with a strong China slowly buying out Africa and courting new friends and allies in South America, Donald Trump has his work cut out for him. 

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Future of the United Nations

I remember watching an episode of Dick van Dyke's “Diagnosis Murder” many years ago, in which a terrorist conspiracy theorist accused the “United Nations shadow government” of influencing US affairs. Watching that, I laughed as I considered how such a story line would not make it to the screen today. I would be surprised if even conspiracy theorists thought so much of the UN today as to presume that they could have a shadow government in place in any major nation.

Donald Trump has said that the UN is a club for people to “have a good time”. He has also said that “things will be different” after he takes office. What exactly does he mean? Of course, we can't be sure. But we can be sure that the UN cannot survive as a viable international body without the financial and moral support of the United States.

The US pays 22 percent of the world's contributions to the UN budget, 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget and is one of the 5 permanent members of the security council. The UN headquarters itself is located in New York City. It must be quite troubled for the UN leadership to witness the growing schism between the organisation and its primary benefactor.

I expect a Trump-led United States to be much more nationalistic than the Obama administration; President-elect Trump doesn't seem to take much interest in being the “leader of the free world”. On the contrary, he clearly stated during his ultimately successful election campaign: “I'm not running to be President of the World”. Where does this leave bodies devoted to international cooperation such as the UN? I submit that it puts those bodies on the path to quasi-irrelevance unless and until they fall in line with the will of the US Government. And if truly the UN cannot function without towing the US's diplomatic line, then what is the point of the body except as a thinly veiled cover aimed at legitimising US global foreign policy?

The new world order commences on January 20th. What exactly will it look like? None of us knows for sure, but I bet it's going to be interesting!

Monday, 26 December 2016

The Little Prince (2015) - Movie Review

My wife and daughter watched the little prince several weeks ago and were very moved by it. Over Thanksgiving and Christmas, my daughter's gifts have centred around Little Prince merchandise including a stuffed Mr. Fox, a star night-light and principal character figurines. Feeling rather left out, I decided to watch the recent Netflix production of the Little Prince this morning. I went into the movie not totally unaware of the story, having watched a Japanese Anime version as a child (which by the way only retains some characters, not the story) and having been told the end by a friend a few months ago. (Thanks pal).

The Netflix version is more closely based on the immensely popular book by Antoine de Saint-Expuery, and stars the voice-over talents of James Franco, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro and Paul Giamatti.  It tells the tale of a little girl, burdened by the lofty expectations of a controlling but well-intentioned mother, who accidentally makes a friendship with an old man in the eccentric house next door. The old man proceeds to tell her of the little prince, a little explorer from another planet, who he met in the Sahara desert decades earlier.

The tale is fantastical, multi-layered and emotional. This version beautifully blends the original tale with a modern story, which offers up additional tools to help with interpreting the story; and yes, this story does require interpretation – a lot of it. This is the chief strength of the Little Prince. It's not just an entertaining tale for children; in fact, I wonder if it was ever truly intended to be a children's story at all. I encountered multiple layers of meaning in the story and found myself quite seriously contemplating my life at the end of it. The themes are not new, but they are beautifully and artistically considered and delivered.

I will say that I questioned the suitability of one of the themes for children (again lending credence to my theory that this was never intended to be a children's story) but the treatment of that theme was done tastefully and artistically, in such a way that the impact on young minds would be minimized.

All things considered, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and would give it 5/5.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

The New Nuclear World – Of Putin, Trump and the Power of a Tweet

Earlier this Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed the need for Russia to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.” U.S. President-elect Donald Trump responded (at least it appeared to be a response to Putin's statement) with the following tweet:

the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

The world reacted with disbelief. Putin and Trump? Aren't they supposed to be on good terms? Did the President-elect of the United States just start a new nuclear arms race with a tweet?! If there is any reason to take away the President-elect's mobile devices for a while, this is one. Did he intend to be provocative? Did he mean to send a message to the world that America is strong and won't be bullied and will never back down? Or was he simply emphasising the need to modernize and maintain America's existing nuclear capabilities?

The fact that the tweet is so ambiguous about such a sensitive matter affecting world peace and security is extremely troubling. Is this a foretaste of things to come? I view President Putin as a reasonably sensible leader. Strong, authoritarian and certainly not to everyone's taste, but he's no Kim Jung-Il. What happens down the line if the US President engages in loose or ambiguous exchanges with a more volatile nuclear regime? Isn't this the very thing the Clinton Campaign warned America about?

Trump reportedly gave further colour to his tweet in a telephone conversation with MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski:

Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

There's no need going on about the US 2016 elections anymore. They are past, Trump is President-elect and he will become the 45th President of the United States. The world must wish him well and work with him for all our sakes, or the consequences could be very dire indeed. My generation has been very lucky, in not having seen any major global conflict - yet. However, such conflicts are not necessarily consigned to the history books; it would not be the first time that millions have been led to their doom on the back of a leader's avoidable mistakes.

This is where we must look to those who surround the President-elect; those who are more diplomatic, who have more experience of the reality of world affairs beyond the cold hard world of business-driven brinkmanship. This is where the team around Trump will need to step in, to bring out the best in the man, and keep the worst at bay.

I wish them well. I wish us all well.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Adam Saleh, the Boy Who Cried الذئب (Wolf) ? #Boycott Delta

The “Youtube sensation” Adam Saleh recently made an accusation that he was kicked off a Delta Airlines flight for speaking Arabic.  My first reaction to this story was utter shock and horror.  According to Mr. Saleh, he was speaking on the phone to his mother when a “white” lady nearby said she was uncomfortable.  There was a verbal altercation, and he and his friend got kicked off the plane.  Adam Saleh recorded part of the episode, and aired it on his popular Youtube channel.

What is or was your reaction upon hearing this story for this first time?  Anger? Sadness? Confusion?  What is the world coming to, right?  Well, this is one of those situations where it pays to check the facts before drawing a conclusion.  Who exactly is Adam Saleh?  My independent research (cough… Google) has shown that he is a young man well known for “crying wolf.”  For example, he once published a video of himself being allegedly frisked by a policeman for dressing like a Muslim.  It later emerged that this video was faked and that the “policeman” was an actor.  Adam’s defence? Apparently it was a re-enactment of what had happened earlier.  I agree that a person’s prior wrongdoing does not conclusively prove that their current action is wrong.  It does however make you think twice, thrice and even four times about the integrity of their current position.

An alternative version of events, according to a witness on the plane, is that Adam Saleh randomly pumped his first in the air and shouted in Arabic on 3 occasions, causing her to state that she was uncomfortable, and that this is what kicked off the whole debacle.  Now that puts a whole different spin on things.  I know I would feel extremely uncomfortable under those circumstances!  Here is a great summary by David Wood.

Whatever the facts, this is a lesson that life has taught me well.  There’s always another side to the story, and you are forming your opinion on incomplete facts, if you have not heard that other side.  As much as possible, always seek out both sides of the story, digest them, and then decide what you believe.

What is your opinion of Adam Saleh and the #boycott Delta trend?

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Max Lucado's The Christmas Candle - 2013 - Movie review

I saw Max Lucado's "The Christmas Candle" last night on Amazon Prime and quite enjoyed it.  The story, based on Mr. Lucado's book, starts off with a tale about a candle which is touched by an angel once a year; whoever lights that candle and prays is sure to get an answer.  It then moves on to a subsequent generation and follows the tale of a preacher whose faith has been derailed by personal tragedy, and looks to find it again in the small town from which - coincidentally - originated the legend of the Christmas Candle.

Ultimately this is a tale about faith and doubt, reason and superstition, and the discerning viewer can draw lessons from the parable even where they are not clearly stated.  While I enjoyed the movie and it delivered more than I expected (for I grant I expected a simpler, lighter Christmas tale), I do think it lost an opportunity to clearly articulate a particular lesson; I would have written the end slightly differently, to accentuate the message that had been implied by other events in the movie.

Hans Matheson shines in the lead role as the preacher David Richmond, while Sylvester McCoy (Dr. Who 1987 - 1989!) also does a fantastic job as Edward Harrington, the old keeper of the candles, supported by Leslie Manville.  Susan Boyle's debut movie performance leaves much to be desired; she's a truly gifted singer, but she seemed stiff and uncomfortable on set, and I even suspected that her speaking voice had been dubbed over - even if by herself - in a couple of scenes.

The critics hated this movie - not a surprise given the subject matter and the way it was treated - but most audiences responded positively according to the scores on Rotten Tomatoes.  I'm with the audiences on this one.  It could have been executed better, but it was entertaining and inspiring, without being saccharine.

If you get the chance to see it, let me know what you think!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Murder in Ankara

The assassination of the Russian Ambassador in Turkey is a cruel, senseless act which cannot be justified by Russia’s actions in Syria.  War is a complicated and brutal thing, and it’s difficult to summarize the rights and wrongs of any conflict – where they can be defined at all.  Regardless of the merit or otherwise of Russia’s actions in supporting Bashar Al-Assad, the taking of a life outside of legitimate combat is nothing short of murder, and the main actor(s) in such an affair are nothing but cold-blooded killers.  There is no honor in shooting a man in the back and then ranting like a lunatic waiting to be taken out.  There is no glory in robbing a wife of her husband and a son of his father.
The killer has wasted his own life, as well as Andrei Karlov’s.  He has changed nothing in Syria and his actions will do nothing to further the interests of the besieged, persecuted and oppressed.  He has only taken a life, lost his own and thrown his own family and friends as well as Mr. Karlov’s into disarray.

What a broken world we live in, and how sad that people are moved to treat their fellow man so.
What a broken world we live in.

Monday, 19 December 2016

I Love Lucy (TV Series 1951 - 1957) - Brief Review

For a comedy series this old, it's amazing how current and funny the jokes are.  Of course I've heard about the series since I was a child, but never had the opportunity of watching it.  Having recently discovered it on Hulu, it's become one of my favorite comedies. There are 4 main characters; Lucy (Lucille Ball) - a wide-eyed slightly neurotic housewife; her husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), and their landlord & landlady, Fred (William Vance) and Ethel (Vivian Vance).

Lucy is the main comical character, with Ricky playing the sensible one.  Neither Fred nor Ethel are particularly sensible, which adds to the fun.  The series is fully scripted, but you wouldn't know it; wonderfully acted, genuinely funny (and not much is these days) and full of old-fashioned heart, I whole-heartedly recommend this to lovers of clean family comedy.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Black or White (2014) Movie Review

Black or White stars Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer and Gillian Jacobs in a drama about a custody battle for Elliott Anderson's (Costner's) mixed race grand-daughter.  I watched this yesterday on Netflix - after much procrastination - and enjoyed it.  The casting of the little girl was impeccable; totally believable as the child torn between loyalty to and love for her grandfather, and her love for her wider African-American extended family.  Add to this the longing for a father she never knew and you have the makings of a good dramatic tale.

I had feared that this movie would be predictable and preachy, but I was wrong.  The subject matter, I feel, was appropriately handled with a good dose of realism mixed with smatterings of Hollywood caricatures and absurdities, for dramatic and sometimes comic effect.

Having said that, I didn't find myself as emotionally invested as I should have been, and I'm not sure why.  There was plenty of emotional bait drip-fed to the viewer, so perhaps this speaks more to my state of mind while watching than to the movie's power to engage its audience and make them feel something.

If you like dramas and movies about race/ racial identity, then you might well enjoy this one.

Friday, 16 December 2016

This Is Us (TV Series - 2016) - A Brief Review

I first encountered this delightful drama after my wife started watching it on Hulu several weeks ago.   I started from the last 10 minutes of Episode one, got busy, and dropped in again halfway through Episode 3.   A couple of episodes later, I realized that this show was a keeper.  If you've been lucky enough not to have not had the story spoilt, then please start from Episode one, pay attention and enjoy the unfolding drama.

This is us is well acted - the entire cast is strong - well written and layered with emotion. It's exactly the sort of program I enjoy watching; definite progress is made each week as the story unfolds, as opposed to some dramas which stretch out a theme or premise like some sort of never-ending cliffhanger.  This show is one that satisfies, episode after episode, and yet simultaneously leaves you questioning and wanting more.

If I have a criticism of the show, it's that a story arc was inserted towards the end of the season that I found difficult to reconcile with a character we had slowly grown to and love.  It wasn't believable to me and seemed to have been written in as an after-thought.

Season one is now over in the US, and I can't wait for season two.  Hopefully the show will not falter, stumbling down unnecessary routes but will stick to heart of the compelling unfolding tale which has gripped many fans, including this one, for the last several weeks.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

What Does it Take To Be President? The Playbook from 2016

CAMPAIGN1      Speak with confidence.  It doesn’t matter if you know what you’re talking about, or if what you’re saying makes sense.  Just say it.  Say it loud, and say it like you mean it.  (No, it doesn’t matter if you mean it either).

Take every opportunity that comes your way to drum up publicity.  Think of the most outlandish thing you can say, and just say it!  Okay, it may hurt you for a while but folks can be pretty forgiving; you’ll be okay.

3.       Grab cats.  Lots of them.  Work it out.

4.       Be a master of social media.  Don’t worry about looking a bit odd sending random tweets in the middle of the night.  It shows you’re engaging with your public and what’s more, that you’re entertaining!

5.       Appear different.  Promise to drain swamps or something.  Again, you don’t have to think through what this means in detail.  It’ll sound great.

And if you follow these steps and do become president?  Tear up the playbook and start from scratch.  Just hire smart folks and let them run the country for you, freeing up your time to remotely manage your business investments and produce celebrity reality shows.

Done deal!  Based on a true story.

Monday, 12 December 2016

America is Good and Russia is Bad. Right?

I grew up in a world where Russia was bad and America was good.  These were the final cold war years, the time of Gorbachev and Reagan, when even superhero comic books had our caped wonders battling the evils of communism and contemplating the assassination of Soviet leaders.  How times have changed.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States has made a lot of people question the future of the established world order.  That settled state of affairs where America stands for freedom and tolerance and democracy, against despots and tyrants and terrorists, is a thing which can no longer be taken for granted.

In this writer’s opinion, President-elect Trump said and did many troubling things during his successful presidential campaign, two of which were to publicly speak in favor of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and suggest his (Trump’s) support of Russia’s alleged hacking into the Democratic Party’s emails.  He stated clearly that he admired the Russian strongman, and that Putin had bested Obama at every step. 

Now that Trump is weeks away from being sworn in as the President of the United States, what are we to expect from the United States – Russia relationship?  Is this apparent chumminess a good thing?  Does it signal the start of a safer more coordinated era of peaceful diplomacy among major world powers? Or is it the start of a troubling decline towards pragmatism and away from social and philosophical ideals that have held sway in Western world politics since the end of World War II?

Only time will tell.