TV / DVD

Playing the Empire's game

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Computer games are now a massive industry, with a huge reach into many people's lives. Ruairidh MacLean discusses the political significance of some recent games and asks how socialists should engage with this expanding cultural industry

Not long ago video games were seen as being exclusively the refuge of children and of men unable to escape their childhoods. Perhaps little has changed, but the huge profits recorded by the industry over the last decade have proved, if nothing else, that for many video games have become a medium of choice. Moreover, games like Braid and Penumbra have proven that, even when commercial, games can still present challenges that test not only players' reflexes, but the nature of the medium itself and even the society that has produced it.

The Borgias

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Watch The Borgias and you will be entertained by a gripping, sumptuous drama telling the story of Rodrigo Borgia, a man who schemed, bribed and poisoned his way to become Pope Alexander VI. This nine-part series follows the rise of the despotic Borgia family as they struggle to maintain their grip on power.

Actor Jeremy Irons is so convincing as Rodrigo that he makes God's envoy on earth appear "human" despite the inhumane methods he uses. Murder, intrigue, treachery and sex make this so much more than a stilted costume drama - although the costumes are stunning.

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

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Stewart Lee

There are three comedians that I think embody the stand-up scene today: Frankie Boyle, talented but toxic; Michael McIntyre, pleasantly babbling like Boris Johnson's bozo blood brother; and Stewart Lee who is, apparently, the current comedian's comedian.

Stewart Lee's stand-up divides opinion. Not fluffy or feel-good (unless you enjoy his riffs), he does upset people. Fortunately he upsets the right people.

The War You Don't See

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Director: John Pilger, Release date: out now

"Light 'em all up," comes the voice on the radio as we see footage from an Apache gunship over Baghdad in 2007. A group of men are then mown down by machine gun fire. "Nice," continues the voice, impressed at the carnage. This footage was never before shown on TV.

This is the war we don't see - the daily violence of the "war on terror". Instead we are served a diet of false stories about weapons of mass destruction and imminent terrorist attacks, repeated on loop 24 hours a day and awarded an unquestioning reverence.

Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-77

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This sumptuous four-DVD box set produced by the British Film Institute (BFI) contains 34 rare documentary films from the post-war period.

The 100-page accompanying booklet makes grandiose claims for the significance of these films but the reality is quite different: this box set is not worth buying and only a handful of these films are worth watching even once.

In fact this set is only worth reviewing because it throws an interesting sidelight on the relationship between socialist politics and film, culture and art.

You can see the issue played out clearly enough in the recently released feature Made in Dagenham.

The Beaches of Agnes

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Director Agnès Varda, Release date: 22 February

Agnès Varda heads backwards through the sands, weaving together memories of her life, clips of her own films, and images of her friends and neighbours (some celebrities, many not).

She is retracing her steps and, in her own words, "imagining oneself as a child is like running backwards". Now 80 years old, having successfully experimented with photography, cinematography and documentary, Varda combines them all in a film about her own life. But with Varda it is never that simple.

Cry, The Beloved Country

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Director: Zoltan Korda, Release date: 18 January

Cry, The Beloved Country was first released in 1952. It is based on the novel by Alan Paton, released in 1948, just four months before the racist National Party, which introduced the legal system of apartheid, took power in South Africa.

Paton won numerous awards for his novel, and it was an important work in its time - it raised the plight of black people in South Africa to an international audience.

Agnes Varda Collection: Volume One

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Release date: out now

Agnès Varda, director and screenwriter, was the lone woman among the major figures in the French New Wave, or more particularly the Left Bank, movement. The movement is associated with a rebellion against the traditional form of films - using unusual camera shots and unexpected turns of plot. Many of these films were experimental and were produced on a low budget. The Left Bank directors were non-conformist and bohemian in their lives as well as their films, and were identified with the political left.

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