Snap General Election: Tory Gains in Scotland?

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For all those living on the dark side of the moon or in the deep and mysterious world of the dark internet, today, the British Minister, Theresa May, announced a snap General Election.  For the cynical, the PM’s u-turn has been greeted as a shameless opportunistic leap to paint the entire map of Britain Tory blue, dissolve the NHS, and take benefits away from the disabled with the view of burning them as alternatives to fossil fuels. These predictions are only half true.  The point remains that the PM must be in possession of some privileged information that gives her confidence to make this decision. She is seeking a landslide, but how can she do it and how will Scotland and the never-ending constitutional question influence the election?

As  much as the SNP would like to frame England and “the English” as  a country of  immense unthinking troglodytes, many variations exist. Recently, I read, the English and Their History by  Robert Tombs, and it laid bare the amazing complexity of England,  Britain’s largest country is a rich mosaic of competing regions.  The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution gave rise to the Whig and Tory party, the birth of the two-party system, and an adversarial politics fought with a fierce sectarian loyalty.   The same historical influence can be seen when we talk about the north south divide, nothing has changed since the 19th century.  The Chartist Movement, radical reformers and passionately anti-Tory,  where located in around the major cities of the north, Manchester, Leeds, London, and the Midlands.  Should you look at a map you would be astounded to discover the similarity between Chartism and present day Labour voting patterns.

The same applies to religion. Non-conformism was prevalent in the North and was  characterized as anti-establishment, prone to militancy, with a paranoid and wildly cynical view of Tory motives, and views politics as a moral struggle. Sound familiar?  The Tory heartlands were predominantly Anglican and have rarely changed over time. There is also the South West, in the 19th century Cornwall was an impenetrable enclave that the cosmopolitan elites thought of as remote as the Scottish Highlands. These divisions are long-standing and have given us great sporting rivalries and cherished local peculiarities.  The difficulty for Theresa May is that these local ties are strong and she will find it near impossible to shift the great Labour heartlands into Conservative enthusiasts.


To make significant gains the Tories must hold onto what they while making in-roads in Scotland, the North, London, or Wales. As I said above, the north will hold, Sunderland and Teesside are not going to vote Tory, ever. London, the liberal heart of the nation,  is brimming with Brexit fury and could leak votes to the Liberal Democrats.

What appears to be happening is the Tory heartlands are more Tory and there is a greater Tory vote on traditional Labour areas, which is distorting the figures, but is not  not enough to win oust Labour MPs. This creates problems in the first past the post system, support in a predominantly Tory heartland going from 60% to 70% makes no difference to their chances of winning a landslide. It could be 100% but it wouldn’t mean  the Tories would get more seats.  Given some areas of England are impenetrable, where will Theresa May pick up seats?

Wrapped in the ideological pitch battle of separation, Scotland could be profitable hunting ground for the Conservatives. The Scottish Elections in 2016 saw a significant shift to Conservative voting. Across the board, there was a 10% swing to Ruth Davidson’s party. What is more revealing, are the regional differences within Scotland. As with England, the SNP portray Scotland as a homogeneous entity, thinking the same way and voting the same way, but there are regional differences.  Perthshire, Angus, Caithness, Ayrshire, the Borders, South Midlothian, Aberdeenshire, and South Midlothian and Tweed-dale saw impressive increases in Conservative voting, a swing of around 15%.  Once voters have consciously brought themselves to the point of voting for the Conservatives in a Scottish Election,  they will vote for Theresa May in the General Election.  Riding on the wave of Scottish Unionism, the possibility exists that the Conservatives could pick up 5 seats in Scotland.

  1. Aberdeenshire West. The Scottish Conservatives won this seat with a 17% swing.  A constituency clearly unhappy with the constitutional question,  this could fall into Conservative hands.

    Aberdeenshire West

    2016 Scottish Election, Source BBC

  2. Dumfries & Galloway. The SNP have a majority of 6,000. However, they  voted for the Conservatives in the Scottish Election and will be on the Tory radar.

    Dumfries

    2016 Scottish Election, Source, BBC

  3. Ettrick, Berwickshire, and Roxburgh. The SNP majority of less than 300 will disappear. A Conservative win. They voted overwhelmingly Conservative in the 2015 Scottish Election.

    Berwickshire, Roxburgh, & Selkirk

    UK General Election, 2015, Source BBC

  4. Perthshire North. The SNP have a significant majority, but there is a chance of Tory victory. Even though this seat was held by SNP heavyweight John Swinney,  he lost 12.5% of the vote.

    North Perthshire

    2016 Scottish Election, Source BBC

  5. Moray. The seat of Deputy Leader and full-time blow hard, Angus Robertson. WIth any luck this incredible annoyance will be consigned to the dustbin of history. He has a good chance of keeping his seat, given his publicity. At the Scottish Election,  the SNP vote fell by 11% and the Conservative vote rose by 18%. Should voting patterns replicate themselves the Conservatives will win Moray.

    Moray

    UK General Election, 2015, Source BBC

There are a few caveats to these projections. The SNP have the advantage of relying on Labour’s gerrymandering tactics from Tony Blair’s day, so the boundaries naturally favour the SNP. However, there is room for at least 4 or maybe 5 seats to be won in Scotland. If May can pick these up along with 7 or 8 in England and then a few in Wales, she has an increased majority, but she should be wary. The Liberal Democrats could win back voters in the South West,  this is predominantly a liberal democrat area, and could easily switch back in June. However,  Scotland and Wales combined could reap ten seats. Either way, how Scotland votes will be crucial in this election. Should a Scotland deliver 5 or 6 Conservative MP’s, the question of separation and Brexit becomes increasingly complex and more difficult to resolve.

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The SNP’s Stubbornness is Vile

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When I was young boy – no more than seven or eight – I was involved in a terrible family feud. The story is old but familiar – sibling rivalry. The family were at my grandparents, a second-home for me, and an argument erupted, as conflicts inevitably arise when family members coalesce. In this case of familial battle, I was the lead agitator. An event had been organised at the mythical SECC and my sister was to attend, I on the other-hand was to stay home. Being the self-centred mummy’s boy, I cried foul play and thought the apparent sibling favouritism a gross outrage. There was pleading and shouting but I could not persuade my parents to take me. Once all diplomatic efforts had failed I chose the nuclear option – “I’m going to run away” I threatened. “Run away then” they calmly replied. Noting this bluff I duly ran away.  I didn’t escape far; making it only to the neighbours shed which was 10 feet from our kitchen door.  The incredible feat was my stubbornness; I sat steaming in a boiling rage for hours in that shed; injustice preserving my commitment.

With time my obstinacy has waned. On reflection I noted that my stubbornness was a curios Scottish behaviour, observable in all our lives. We have all been involved in friend and family disharmony. The impossible task is re-uniting the combatants and concluding a peaceful resolution. Even opening-up a line of dialogue is a difficult to impossible process. Playing the part of negotiator you will ask “Have you called Peter yet?”  They will respond in the negative and resolutely proclaim that he will not phone Peter until he phones him first. Like some embittered Stonehenge, they remain trapped, stuck in the same silent position for decades. This is not isolated to me it is a Scottish phenomenon: we possess an impenetrable stubbornness.

Nicola Sturgeon is a paragon of this cultural characteristic; should we be able to transfer stubbornness to energy the woman could power a medium-sized European country, she is resolute in her crusade. Since the last referendum she has under-took super-natural efforts to convince the Scottish people that separation of the Union is the only political option. Week-after-week, day-after-day, the Scottish people are bludgeoned mercilessly about another referendum.  Riding high on the crest of a nationalist wave the SNP placed another referendum at the heart of their Scottish Election Manifesto.  Should the polls convey a continued and deep desire for separation the SNP would call it; a change in material circumstances of Scotland would likewise initiate a rerun.   As the passage of time has want to do, changes occurred – the Brexit bombshell profoundly altered the calculus of the referendum question.

Brexit turned the rhetoric dial to warp-speed and she has taken to wielding the sledge-hammer like an axe to the walnut.  The initial reaction was forceful, another referendum will be called. When the Scottish people noticed her desperate opportunism and refusal to accept their 2014 vote she back-tracked and took the position “likely”.  This has then evolved onto “highly likely”.  Today the 30th of January there is another stark warning to Theresa May that time is “running out” for an acceptable deal.  Sturgeon is not alone in her hard-headed approach. Possessed with the same immovable intransigence, the rank and file have followed their dear leader’s example. In the last week, Joanna Ferry and Stewert Hosie (MP) have appeared on the Andrew Neill show to parrot unoriginal intellectual excrement. Brexit is the clarion call for independence. The mantra is endless and consistent – separation is imminent. In the spirit of convenience, we should just move to a colour chart system  like the ones usually reserved for terrorist attacks; green – no independence referendum possible; orange – referendum likely; red – referendum imminent.

Our reaction to Another SNP Call for a Referendum

What any perceptive human being will tell you, however, is that a stubborn child, in order to get his own way, will endlessly change their argument. The SNP is no different. In the 1970’s the SNP noticed a gap in the political landscape. Sandwiched between the predominant power of Labour and the shrinking influence of the Conservatives, the SNP electioneered as the heirs of Tories with a tartan twist, hence the haunting sobriquet “Tartan Tories”.  In the 1990’s the SNP moved to the centre, embraced the Thatcherite model and positioned the party as the “Celtic Tiger”, a neoliberal model in the image of Ireland – New Labour of the North. More recently austerity provided an opportunity for an opening on the left. Ever the opportunists the Tartan Tories became born-again socialists, a remarkable revelation of biblical scale. The point is clear – the SNP employ any political head-wind to satisfy their ideological goals.

With characteristic stubbornness, the mantra has again changed. The Brexit argument has run aground, people are not willing to leave the Union for Europe, so they have updated their offer.The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the SNP is not really in love with the EU but seeks a deal akin to Norway’s relationship with Europe, an abrupt divergence from the line peddled during the referendum. The SNP embraced Brussels with all the love of a long-lost sibling re-united. In fact, immediately after the Brexit vote, Sturgeon flew to Brussels in a pathetic attempt to undermine the UK, sycophantically cuddling-up to the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. Now the EU is out, no longer  de rigeur.  Scotland will now join the EEA!! Incredible!

The new position is a direct response to recent polling data from renowned polling expert, John Curtice. Unsurprisingly, many “Yes” voters find the prospect of Scotland selling itself to the EU as perfect hypocrisy. Alive to the lesser of two evils, the voters have switched from voting for separation for staying in the Union. Ever the unprincipled politicians, the SNP are now luke-warm to the EU, in the hope they can convince those voters back. Capriciousness is the tactic of the manipulator, consistently changing their argument to finally get their way and the SNP is king of the inconsistent. This is not politics but meeting political end-points at any cost.Perhaps we should expect better, for our leaders to aspire to greater things. Instead we have a shifty amoral rump that exhibit behaviour reserved for an impetuous child.

The SNP’s Immigration Problem

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The SNP are stacking-up an armoury of grievances to support their ideological objective of dissolution of the Union.  Since Brexit, Scotland’s unmatched matron of mischief has cast another ingredient into her toxic nationalistic brew to support the case for separation – the free movement of labour. Enshrined in EU law and pillar of the four-freedoms free movement has been tossed onto the nationalist fire. With the uncontrolled will of runaway crazy train, the SNP have set Scotland on a crash course with Britain, mining the future with numerous booby-traps that will trigger another referendum.  Not diverging from the odious habits of the SNP, blackmail was the order of the day. Free movement of people was Sturgeon’s red line for Theresa May, should she cross that threshold the SNP would trigger a new referendum.  Acknowledging this behaviour fit for medieval royal usurpation, May dutifully called the wanton political mercenary out on her shameless ransom. No supplicant well-turned knee was observed to this brazen act of bravado and show-woman-ship.

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Nippy Told to Bolt

The free movement argument exposes a deeper hypocrisy; the SNP’s ability to cross and devour any ethical line in pursuit of their cause.  Only last weekend did Alasdair Allan proclaim that Scotland has ‘369,000 migrants from outside the UK’ and generally speaking these are young ambitious workers that bring important skills to the job market that contribute to our economy.Like the broad beam of a lighthouse on a cliff, the SNP positions itself as a sanctuary for EU migrants and a beacon of light in the hostile waters of Brexit.  They are protectors of EU migrants; in fact, they stipulate their intentions for a greater intake of EU migrants, they are indispensable to the Scottish economy. The mantra is tireless and consistent.Noble indeed, but it appears that political expediency is not without its irony.

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Allan: Pro EU Migrant but Anti Gay Marriage

The SNP proclaim to be the protectors of EU migrants yet they are employing them as a tool for political purposes. Their current position is fraught with pitfalls and dangers that seem invisible to upper echelons of Scottish stasi.  The next referendum will not be all bon homie and celebration, morals have become coarsened and the ideological lines hardened. The trench-lines are drawn and the whistle for attack ready to be heard. There exists a rightful and just silent resentment in segments of the Unionist camp; their votes and opinions have been discarded with the shoddy consideration reserved for Christmas trees in January. On the otherside of no-man’s-land, the nationalists possess a demonic zeal. Chastened and feeling cheated, they march to the beat of sweet revenge, looking to exercise the demons of 2014.  Should the cold war heat up, immigration will become a central talking point, particularly EU immigrants. The new referendum is being waged in the context of Brexit, immigration therefore will be crucial, and it already is. MSP Alasdair Allan, SNP, claimed that reducing EU immigration does ‘serious harm’ to Scotland. Placing EU migrants at the centre of the constitutional tempest is ill-advised in the extreme.

The SNP’s endemic short-termism and pursuit of their ideological dreams has placed immigrants in harm’s way. Yet these are the same individuals who vilify others for employing immigrants as a political football. We are told how rancid the Brexiteers are for using immigration as political capital, an unholy and selfish act that could lead to recriminations against migrants and minorities. Yet they would have you believe that placing them front and centre in the bludgeoning battle for the soul of a nation is not only completely responsible but virtuous. What perfect twaddle. That reasoning demonstrates the terminal stupidity of the nationalists: relentless moral signalling; little consideration.

The hypocrisy unravels further: The British Union is of greater importance to Scotland than the EU. The SNP peacocks its moral worth by being the sole protector of the Scottish economy and EU immigrants:  but what of our fellow countrymen?  Where is the respect and due consideration of the Northern Irishmen who has made Scotland his home? Or the Mancunian who has set-up trade in the burgeoning digital industry? Who speaks for them in the endless pursuit of national disintegration? Brought on by the gale of nationalistic fervour, 500,000 British people living in Scotland will become foreign nationals overnight. It does not suit the SNP to fight for their rights or acknowledge their existence or contribution to the economy. For let’s be clear here, Scotland relies on those people to fund its hospitals, build its railways, educate our children, and house our homeless.

According to the SNP, Scotland should remove itself from Britain because we need EU migrants; their loss does ‘serious harm’ to our country, but what about the British in Scotland? Scotland’s population grew to 5.2 million; the largest in its history, an  unprecedented statistic brought on due to the inward migration of fellow Brits. In fact they comprise a large part of Scotland; 514,000 people from Northern Ireland, Wales and England compared to 173,000 from the EU.  Net migration from the Union is greater than the EU. Scotland relies far more heavily on the British union for workers than the EU. In fact, Scotland relies more heavily on immigration from around the world than it does from the EU.  When Alasdair Allan proclaimed that Scotland has ‘369,000 migrants from outside the UK’ he deliberately conflated EU and non-EU migrants. EU migrants count for less than half of all foreign migrants, 10% of those are students that cost the Scottish Government £25.6 million, in 2013-14.  Furthermore, the British government currently has no major plans to alter international immigration from non-EU countries. Mr Allan just shamelessly uses those figures to make the EU numbers appear larger than they are. The EU migrant argument is a dead stick and should be ignored and challenged consistently. Do we need EU migrants? Yes. Do we need the EU? Preferably. Do we need them as much as we need the union? Never.

A Digital Murder Witness: The Amazon Echo

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Sci-Fi crime writers take note; the Amazon Echo has been summoned as a witness in a murder case. Let me explain.  The Amazon Echo is a home audio speaker system you control with your voice.  The owner utters a “wake word” – a word of choice- to activate the Echo and a bounty of information is readily available. Weather reports, news updates, general queries, and purchases are operated through voice commands.  The operating system – Alexa – is always listening, always learning and always ready to help you run your life smoother.  Amazon’s new technological masterpiece is the must-have for any smart-home, another building block in the emerging Internet of Everything. That convenience is rewarded financially; the Amazon Echo sold millions this Christmas and was Amazon’s best selling product.  But there is a cost to convenience.

Recently, the Echo has been summoned as a witness in a murder case by Bentonville Police Department, in Arkansas. In 2015 Victor Williams was found dead at the home of James Bates. Bates maintains that he, Williams, and a few friends watched a football match and had a few beers before going to bed. When he awoke Bates said he found Williams dead and phoned the police. The authorities discovered blood around the bath and broken bottles and suspected foul play. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.  Bates is accused of strangulating and drowning his friend, Victor Williams, in a hot tub. In an effort to eradicate any trace of his crime, Bates used a garden hose to clean his hot-tub and clothes of blood.  Amongst the evidence is 140 gallons of water used between 1am and 3am. That evidence, however, is circumstantial; running water has never equalled murder.

In an effort to add weight to the case, the investigators turned to the owner’s Amazon Echo that could have recorded the incident. Consequently they issued a warrant to Amazon.com to turn over recordings and other audio from the customer’s Echo. Amazon has emphatically rejected any release of the customer’s data without “valid and binding legal demand.” This development, however, raises two unwelcome but pressing questions. One, what are the listening and recording capabilities of the Amazon Echo? Two, what is the potential for state authorities to compromise a corporate data system?

In response to the potentially toxic and explosive accusation of eaves-dropping on its customers, an Amazon spokesman has came forward to dampen the more fanciful claims and stated that Amazon is a harmless victim in an unfortunate, unedifying saga. One of the Echo’s features is a hard mute that turns the microphone off completely, a device characteristic that makes it impossible for the microphone to hear you. The device also switches off after use, a light indicating when recording has ceased. According to Forbes, any conversation recorded is stored and encrypted on the user’s account and can be deleted at any time. While personal data is the black gold of the 21st century, a business would have to be guilty of criminal greed to risk its financial sustainability. Recklessness aside, attempts to pin accusations of vast data trawling on the company are, without sufficient evidence, conjecture and conspiratorial.  Should you seek a reason to be paranoid, the iPhone in your pocket channels information directly into the supercomputers of GCHQ and the NSA.  One note of caution, however, the Echo like your phone, laptop, or iPad, can be hacked and the microphone turned on, allowing any outsider to listen to your conversations.

There remains a door ajar for state authorities: Amazon remains open to the suggestion of legal challenge, a danger that should be watched with a beady eye, certainly given our current state of war. The Amazon Echo incident is reminiscent of the FBI’s legal tussle with Apple, in March 2016. In that case, the state wanted access a terrorist’s encrypted iPhone and lobbied Apple to design a “backdoor” into the phone. Apple responded refused to bow to pressure, backing its case by claiming that any “master key” could be exploited by criminals and compromise user privacy.

The Case of the Amazon Echo in Historical Context

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The History of Encryption

Encryption was always a privilege that was jealously guarded.  During the Second World War, Churchill and Roosevelt deployed the finest minds to crack Nazi codes, when our predictable cognitive reach touched the inevitable glass ceiling, computers picked up the mathematical baton and decrypted codes hitherto unbreakable. This incredible achievement is immortalised in popular culture via the Imitation Game, Enigma, Codebreakers , and numerous documentaries and television series. Bletchley Park colours the landscape of our culture, a dazzling metonymy of ingenuity, invention, and technological progress.  In this version of unreality, the state presents itself in its best and most cordial dress, a figure of good raging against evil and bringing light to the broad Nazi shadow. Given the existential threat to the nation, the state was genius behind, and the master of, encryption.

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Bletchley Park: The First Powerful Computer Encryption Devices

The Digital Disruption upset the apple cart as encryption was democratised. Until the 1980’s, spies, generals, diplomats and intelligent officers were the sole owners of cryptography. That was to change drastically. Pondering the consequences of the growth of personal computers, a research assistant at Stanford University theorized the need for public encryption between two computers. This researcher was Wittfield Diffie and this proposal was called Public-Key Cryptography. Users could communicate safely without turning to a third-party like the government.  Today Diffie’s system affects every online merchant, touching us invisibly when we purchase from Amazon, Netflix, and Google Play, a digital angel on your shoulder.

The government has made strenuous efforts to regain its control over encryption. Understanding the fantastic destructive potential of anonymous communication the government designed to become the gate-keeper of the internet. The NSA wanted to classify Diffie’s work. Powerful government agencies believed encryption was a weapon of war and should remain under state control.  This became increasingly difficult, however. In the 1990s, as users became tech savvy and aware of the potential of outsiders listening to their phone-calls, encryption went main stream. The demands of the market over-ruled the interests of the state. Nonetheless, some push-back did occur; Bill Clinton introduced the Clip-Chip, an encryption device that allowed mobile phones to communicate safely. The down side is clear, however: Since the US Government provided the encryption they could listen into your phone calls at will. The attempt to regain the thrown was shot down and no consumer was, surprisingly, attracted to this invitation to arbitrary rule and potential digital totalitarianism.

9/11 Profoundly Alters the Encryption Dynamic

If encryption is a weapon of war then 9/11 altered the calculus of encryption politics.  The government declared a state of emergency and was now at war with international terrorism. As with previous wars legislation empowered the US government to run the war effectively. As Lincoln had done during the Civil War, Habeas Corpus was suspended, and raft of acts were passed by Congress, the most infamous being the Patriot Act.  The law extended further, however– mass surveillance.  When the NSA went to Silicon Valley with its begging bowl, the technology giants were willing partners. Email, phone calls, texts – everything that was ever sent across a network was stored.

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Snowden Revealed the Scale of the Problem

The pendulum of cryptography politics had violently shifted back toward the sovereign power. The American Government had access to an unfathomable deluge of information. Post 9-11, the government was exercising authority in unforeseen and unprecedented measures. Disgusted at this orgy, Edward Snowden sought to strike a silver bullet through the post 9/11 environment, where privacy was not protected. There was some degree of success. The scandal brought immense pressure on governments and technology corporations to amend their behavior. Google, Amazon, and Apple took note; customer privacy would be safe-guarded. They were, once again, the encryption brokers.

The Cryptography Wars Continue

Enter stage left the Amazon Echo and Apple, the Bentonville Police Department and the FBI; these two incidents represent government agencies attempting to over-turn the post Snowden environment and regain encryption supremacy. In the first case, an Amazon Echo was called as a witness by Bentonville Police, Arkansas. The authorities accuse James Bates of murdering his friend, Victor Williams, by strangulation and drowning. According to Bates, he, Williams and few friends had some beers and went to bed, when he awoke Williams was dead.  The police investigated and suspected foul play; they discovered broken bottles and blood around the bath.  They gained a warrant to search the premises and amongst the items taken was an Amazon Echo, which has ignited a legal tussle between Amazon.com and Bentonville Police.  The police have demanded that all information on the Echo be turned over as evidence.  For example, should it transpire that the Amazon Echo was used between 1am and 8am then that would refute the accused’ s story.

Amazon refuse to bow to the authorities while the authorities believe the Echo could hold incriminating evidence. According to the Washington Post the affidavit stated:

“The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’ being issued, which is uploaded to Amazon.com’s servers at a remote location,”

The possibility that the Amazon Echo is listening at all times is pure conjecture.  There is no evidence to support this claim. Authorities have been known to guild the lily, however. In 1990’s, the infamous hacker, Kevin Mitnick, was refused bail because the prosecutor argued that Mitnick, using only a telephone, could hack into NORAD and fire an ICBM at Russia.  A preposterous proposition.   The Amazon Echo is an important development in the encryption wars.

 

 

 

Rogue One Vs Force Awakens: Why the Second Installment is Better

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Vader Blends a Few Rebels. His sporadic appearance on screen proves less is more.

The Trilogy Formula for Survival

Evolution is the survival technique of franchises, adaptation and character development, moral progress or providing insight into the changing cultural environment are the basis of continued engagement. Take Back to the Future as an example. Each installment explored different themes and moral conundrums. The first installment touched on core American values, family and Freud, and preserving the treasured aspects of our society and daily lives. The second installment flipped that wholesome narrative on its head. Biff Tannon was an expression of Trumpian arrogance and American gluttony and Marty McFly destroyed his life through abuse of power and hunger for riches. The final installment investigates America’s relationship with the Old West. The conquering, wilderness taming male, Mad Dog Tannon, is tamed and Marty’s foolish pride is wrestled under control. The formula can be witnessed in other trilogies. In Alien, Ripley is a forceful female lead whose will to survive surpasses that of perfectly engineered killing machine – she alone triumphs over a perfect parasitic nightmare. In Aliens Ripley faced superior numbers. Self-reliance was insufficient in these circumstances. Trust, inter-dependence and forgiveness are important building blocks in walling off the Xenomorph hoards. Terminator followed similar lines. The first movie looks outwards and poses the question: Where could the digital revolution terminate?  The second movie looks inwards and asks:  How do we suppress the human capacity for hate and destruction?

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Aliens Mixed the Major Themes to Differentiated the Sequel from the Original

Star Wars: The Force Awakens failed to diverge significantly from previous franchise installments.  Episode VII received positive reviews from critics. The Guardian, the Telegraph, the Sunday Times and the BBC’s Kermode all lauded the installment as a brilliant cinematic experience. The danger is that the critic is swept away and carried in the euphoric wave, an event that distorts reviews. To an extent this happened with the Force Awakens. On the crest of nostalgic anticipation, the Disney production received incredible reviews. As the excitement rolled back and the hysteria simmered to a point where honest reflection was possible, the Force Awakens was scrutinized with a beady eye. JJ Abrams work appeared safer, slightly over-produced, and too closely resembled a New Hope.  There was after all a moon-sized planet destroyer owned by the Empire and the familiar Shakespearean family dynamics, the Skywalker dynasty splintered in a galactic power struggle for the soul of galaxy. Trading in nostalgia is emotional dynamite; each movie fan adored the Force Awakens because it twanged the thread of longing. Therein lies the problem, the Force Awakens was forged under the immense pressure of a post-Lucas production. The formula was consistent with the previous trilogies and brought nothing new to the party, the emergence of a female aside. The stakes were too high.

The Force Truly Awakens

Rogue One offers an alteration in the Star Wars Franchise in a way that the Force Awakens did not.  The Force Awakens was a straight up Manichean dual, no blurred grey area existed; Rogue One deals in moral ambiguity in spade fulls. In one scene, Cassian Andur, the main rebel spy, and one of his informants are cornered by Stormtroopers. Knowing the informant cannot escape, due to a broken arm, and will undoubtedly bend to an Imperial inquisition, Cassian unflinchingly shoots the informant in the back. This is murky territory. Later Jyn Erso accuses Cassian of blindingly following immoral orders in the face of reason. In both cases, the brutalising nature of war is brought forward for us to ponder: War coarsens our morals and good men can swiftly transition into tyrants in pursuit of what they perceive as just. Moral dubiety is present in other characters. The Imperial scientist Galen Erso balances the nuances of survival, redemption and exquisite revenge. Caught between the immorality of collaboration and the morality of justice he embodies the complexity of war beyond the good vs evil paradigm. Our modern tastes are accustomed to moral tension. The Dark Night, Breaking Bad, and Iron-Man: Civil War demonstrates the evolution in audience taste, they demand nuance and complexity. Rogue One has definitely taken note.

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Rogue One Meditates on the Sacrifice of War

The simple pattern has rarely shifted significantly and Star Wars rarely fleshed-out in any substantial way the weighty ideals that surround war. As any historian will testify, sacrifice is the cost of liberty and freedom is built on the dead bodies of the fallen. That human but exceptionally salient point is often missed. The Star Wars franchise is often prioritized pure fantasy over gritty realism. Cost is a pillar of the movie without the movie being overpowered by emotional indulgence. There is a war going on against the most powerful force in the universe, Lord Vader. The battle cannot be won without sacrifice and struggle. In the final scenes, individuals fall in the name of higher ideals. The incredible march of Darth Vader through a platoon of helpless rebel soldiers only serves to highlight the personal cost endured in war in the face of impeccable terror.  Rogue One is more visceral than the Force Awakens and better for it.

Flaws Don’t Diminish the Force

Technical issues should be addressed. The Force Awakens edges out Rogue One on acting.  In almost every department the acting is superior; Daisey Ridley blooms brighter than Felicity Jones; Oscar Isaac is superior to Diego Luna; Adam Driver is slightly sharper than Ben Mendahlson; and Riz Ahmed is awful. The script flirts excessively with cliché, almost falling into the orbit of farce. But these are scratches on the canvass rather than crippling flaws in the brush-stroke: the qualities far out-strip the shortcomings. Mads Mikkelson is the best Star Wars performance since Sir Alec Guinness. The philosophy that less is more is clearly effective. The Force Awakens is compelled to be visually spectacular and Kylo Ren’s malevolence is required to be the centre-piece of the movie. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is used sparingly and greater potency; Vader punctuates the movie with his terror creating a powerful impact when on screen. Horrible beasts are infrequently

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Paranoia Brought to Life: Loathsome

observed. The exception being rebel leader Saw Gerrera’s  terrifying pet octopus that reads minds by coiling its victims in its gelatinous tentacles, a striking symbol of untrustworthy paranoid rule.  Chirrut Inwe is the correct portion of Jedi mysticism to satisfy the palate. The movie is also a better story. For the first time in a long time, Rogue One is a blockbuster with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s stands alone and is not open-ended. Reverting to an original plot sequence was deeply satisfying; there is a pleasure in finality. There was definitely a pleasure in finally seeing a Star Wars movie worthy of the name again. It only took 30 years but once again I am one with the force and the force is with me.

War Dogs Review

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War Dogs is on Target with Performances but Misfires on Meaning

War Dogs is a divergence from Todd Phillips previous work. Mixing elements of Lord of War, Scarface, and the Big Short, Phillips attempts to scrutinise the shadowy world of arms industry with a comedic twist. War Dogs, rather loosely, retells the story of Efram Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), a pair of college drop-outs who make a fortune selling arms to the US government at the height of the War on Terror. Initially, their operation is small, manageable, covert and profitable. Predictably, the stakes rapidly escalate; they stumble into a massive contract selling 100 million AK-47 bullets to the American government. As reason subordinates to greed and power, the house of cards emphatically collapses and a reckoning ensues.

The true story of two confused males rekindling a bromance while ripping off the American government would have been attractive to Phillips; he has form in this field. He directed the Hangover Franchise and Starsky and Hutch, both of which pivot on the interaction and personality clashes of their male characters. This chemistry imbalance often has hilarious consequences; the straight-laced Starsky is corrupted by the free-thinking liberal Hutch; and Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck instigated the moral descent of dentist Dr Price.

On this familiar ground, Phillips looks most comfortable, absurdity and reckless male ego hold War Dogs together. Both characters are directionless but for different reasons. Packouz is completely lost professionally. He works as a masseuse – his sixth position in two years- or as Diveroli likes to say “jacks men off for a living.” He needs a change and the arms trade offers a highway to riches. Diveroli is morally shipwrecked. Bloated, foul-mouthed, racist, vulgar and an unashamed financial braggart he thrives on emotional manipulation and financial exploitation. Jonah Hill is fantastic as this repellent machismo blob. At times his timing on a turn of phrase is deliciously devastating,“we drive all triangles, especially your mums” he tauntingly says to a GI. Packouz’s good-guy persona contrasts well with the despicable Diveroli; we can tell the difference between an individual who with good intentions sleep-walks into iniquity to a wicked, maniacal, miscreant.

Hill Excells as the Loathsome Diveroli

Comedic highlights include a pursuit through the Iraqi Triangle of Death. While under attack from Iraqi insurgents their guide screams “Must go faster! Fallujah bad! Must go faster Fallujah very bad!” to which Packouz incredulously replies “We stopped for fuel in Fallujah, bro?!?” Yes, indeed. Fallujah 08’ was not the site of the bearded craft beer revolution. It’s an absurd Jeff Goldblum Jurassic Park moment with a War on Terror twist.

War Dogs is not trying to be an absurd male comedy, however; it’s trying to be a serious movie. In this pursuit, it falls into too many cliched traps. Firstly, violence is juxtaposed with a classic score. In one scene, Hill shoots an AK-47 along to Pink Floyd’s anti-war anthem Wish You Were Here, a contrived copy of Scorcese’s use of Cream or the Rolling Stones in Goodfellas. Teller’s voice over is also too forced. In one example, he calls an arms convention “Comi-con with grenades”; this is a script pleading to be taken seriously, desperately trying to frame the characters as witty raconteurs. Bradley Cooper looks buffoonish as the superstar of the illegal arms trade, Henry Gerard. Adorned with red sunglasses and slick-back hair he looks more like Bono’s evil twin.

Bradley Cooper as Bono's Evil Twin

The problem is clear: War Dogs is trying to be too many things at once to be anything meaningful. When their grand scheme inevitably falls apart the audience is told the duo can again sell guns to the American government in 2022, a development that surprises us, if for the wrong reasons. This statement doesn’t fit in with the trajectory of the movie: suddenly War Dogs is an indictment on the American government and the military industrial complex. For most of the movie, we have been invited to enjoy the journey and laugh with the characters. On shooting for meaning War Dogs misfires badly.