BBC 2024-03-01 16:32:18


Alexei Navalny funeral: He is buried in Moscow as crowd chants anti-Putin slogans

Vitaliy Shevchenko

Russia editor, BBC Monitoring

Today saw the largest opposition gathering in Russia since
Alexei Navalny’s jailing in January 2021.

The fact that it was allowed to
happen suggests the Kremlin may have been worried about the
optics of not allowing the late opposition leader’s family to bury him, or of
arresting mourners at a church or cemetery.

It’s also possible that the authorities in Moscow didn’t see the ceremony as enough of a threat.

They’ll be hoping now that the
mourners quietly dissipate and – with no organised opposition to speak of left
in Russia – the Kremlin will hope it won’t have to worry about Navalny’s cause again.

Terminator 2 theme tune plays at Navalny’s burial

Terminator 2 theme tune plays at Navalny’s burial

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been buried at a cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow.

The Terminator 2 theme song was played after Navalny’s coffin was lowered into the ground.

“[Navalny] thought The Terminator 2 was the best film in the whole world,” his spokeswoman Kira Yarmish said.

He died in an Arctic prison – where he had been held on what were widely-considered to be politically-motivated charges.

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Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying: Both Alpines slowest in Q1

McLaren boss Zak Brown told Sky Sports in-between qualifying sessions: “The field looks remarkable close, so I think we are in store for an exciting Q2 and Q3.

“Lando had a fantastic lap there, Oscar has a little bit more time to find, which I’m confident he will, so hopefully we get both cars comfortably in Q3.”

Why alcohol affects brains more than we realise

From the myth of Europeans’ “healthy drinking culture” to the surprising harm of some common family traditions, science is overturning old beliefs around alcohol and young people.
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I turned 18 the day before I left home for university, conveniently passing the UK’s age threshold for buying alcohol just in time to explore student pubs and bars. When I signed up with a doctor near my new home, she asked how many units of alcohol I drank each week – a common way to measure alcohol intake here in the UK, with 1.5 units roughly equalling a small glass of wine. “Around seven,” I said, quickly totting up the few covert vodkas-and-orange that I’d enjoyed on nights out with my friends from school. I thought this was low, but I’d never been much of a rule-breaker.

“That’s going to rise now you’re here,” the doctor replied with a dry chuckle. She wasn’t wrong. Within a few weeks, I was happily knocking back a bottle of wine before lining up shots in the student bar. I knew heavy drinking could wreak its toll across the lifespan, but I hadn’t considered that my youth would bring additional dangers, compared to someone of 30, 40 or 50. Surely the risks were the same for all adults?

If I’d heard what I now know about the unique ways that alcohol can affect the young adult brain, I might have been a bit more cautious. At 18, my brain was still metamorphosing, and would not reach maturity for at least seven years. This alters the way we respond to alcohol – and drinking during this critical period can have long-term consequences for our cognitive development.

Speaking to researchers about the impact of alcohol on young people, I was surprised by many other findings besides these. Research from around the world is beginning to overturn a range of common assumptions around age and alcohol, such as the idea that continental Europeans have a healthier drinking culture than the UK or US, and that allowing young people to drink at home with meals teaches them responsible alcohol use. Whether or not this new science should change our current drinking laws is a complex political issue, but greater awareness of the facts may at least allow future generations to make a more informed choice about the ways that they choose to party – and might help parents decide how to handle alcohol in their own home.

When alcohol becomes legal, teenagers perceive it to be much less risky than before – Alexander Ahammer

Small bodies, big brains

Let’s be clear: alcohol is a toxin. Its dangers span fatal accidents, liver disease, and many kinds of cancer. Even small quantities can be carcinogenic, leading the World Health Organization to declare that “when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health”.

Few activities are completely risk-free, though, and the dangers tend to be weighed against the pleasures that alcohol can bring. Our health policies are therefore guided by the principle of damage limitation with moderate drinking. In the US this is defined as having no more than two drinks a day for men, and no more than one drink a day for women – with many other countries offering similar guidance. Although beer and wine are commonly seen as safer drinks, as the US guidance states, the type of drink is not the important factor – instead, it’s the amount of alcohol consumed: “One 12-ounce beer has about the same amount of alcohol as one five-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-ounce shot of liquor.” Legislation around the age of purchasing alcohol follows a similar logic of damage limitation: the laws protect children, while allowing young adults to make their own choices. In most European nations, the minimum age is 18 years – in the US it is 21.

There are, however, numerous reasons why alcohol may be more dangerous for younger people, even after they have passed the legal minimum drinking age. One is body size and shape: teenagers don’t reach their adult height until 21, and even after they have stopped growing vertically, they may lack the bulk of someone in their 30s or 40s. “Drinking one glass of alcohol therefore results in a higher blood alcohol content for young people than for adults,” says Ruud Roodbeen, a post-doctoral researcher at Maastricht University and the author of Beyond Legislation, which examines the impact of raising the minimum drinking age.

The adolescents’ lean frame is also characterised by a higher head-to-body ratio. I certainly know that I looked a little like a “bobblehead” toy, and these relative proportions can also influence the intoxication that someone experiences. When you drink alcohol, it enters your bloodstream and spreads through your body. Within five minutes, it reaches your brain, easily crossing the blood-brain-barrier that generally protects your brain from harmful substances. “A relatively large part of the alcohol ends up in the brains of young people, and that is yet another reason why young people are more likely to get alcohol poisoning,” Roodbeen says.

Age restrictions on alcohol are aimed at protecting children, but young adults are left to make their own choices (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/BBC/Getty Images)

Shaping the brain

Equally important are the changes occurring within the skull. In the past, neural development was thought to stop in our early teens, but a swathe of recent research shows that the adolescent brain undergoes a complex rewiring that does not end until at least the age of 25.

The most important changes include a decline in “grey matter” as the brain prunes away the synapses that allow one cell to communicate with another. At the same time, white matter – long-distance connections known as axons covered with an insulating fatty sheath – tends to proliferate. “They are like the brain’s super-highways,” says Lindsay Squeglia, a neuropsychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. The result is a more efficient neural network that can process information more quickly. 

The limbic system, involved with pleasure and reward, is the first to mature. “These areas are fully adult-like during adolescence,” Squeglia explains. The prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead, is slower to ripen. This region is responsible for higher-order thinking – which includes emotional regulation, decision-making, and self-control.

The relative imbalance of these two regions’ development can explain why adolescents and young adults tend to be more risk-taking than adults. “A lot of people describe the adolescent brain as having a fully developed gas pedal without brakes,” says Squeglia. And bathing our neurons in alcohol – which is known to release inhibition – may only amplify this thrill chasing. For particularly impetuous teenagers, alcohol can create a vicious cycle of bad behaviour and delinquency. “The more impulsive kids tend to drink more, and then drinking causes more impulsivity,” says Squeglia.

After multiple years of drinking, we see less activation in the brain – Lindsay Squeglia

At high enough frequencies and volumes, adolescent drinking could impair the brain’s long-term development. Longitudinal studies show that early drinking is associated with a more rapid decline in grey matter, while the growth of the white matter is stunted. “Those super-highways aren’t getting paved as much in kids who start drinking,” says Squeglia.

The consequences may not be immediately evident in cognitive tests; in a young brain, the regions responsible for problem solving can work a little bit harder to make up for the deficits. It cannot keep this up forever, however. “After multiple years of drinking, we see less activation in the brain and poorer performance on these tests,” says Squeglia.

Early drinking can also take its toll on mental health, and heightens the risk of alcohol abuse later in life. This is particularly true for people who have a family history of alcoholism – the earlier they start, the greater their chances of developing a drinking problem themselves. The genes associated with an advanced risk of alcohol abuse seem to be most influential during this critical period of brain development. “And the longer that someone is able to wait, the less likely these genes are going to come into play,” says Squeglia.

The drinking culture in the country that you grow up in can have an impact on the relationship you have with alcohol as an adult (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/BBC/Getty Images)

The European model?

How might these findings affect an adolescent’s choices – and their parents’ decisions around how and when to allow them to drink at home?

“Our message is delay as long as you can,” says Squeglia, “because your brain is still developing, and let your brain develop and be as healthy as it can before you start engaging in things like alcohol and other substance use.”

Whether this advice should be enshrined in law is another matter. Squeglia says that, in her public talks on alcohol consumption, members of the audience often raise the question of the “European model of drinking”. In some countries such as France, minors are allowed to have a glass of wine or beer to accompany a family meal. Even outside of Europe many parents believe that slow introduction to alcohol in a controlled context teaches young people to drink safely and reduce binge-drinking later on, whereas restriction leads it to become a tempting “forbidden fruit”.

This is a myth. “The research has shown that the more permissive a parent is with alcohol use, the more likely a kid is to have problems with alcohol later in life,” says Squeglia. A comprehensive review suggests that contrary to the forbidden-fruit belief, “parents imposing strict rules related to adolescent alcohol use is overwhelmingly associated with less drinking and fewer alcohol-related risky behaviors”.

Most evidence suggests that stricter drinking laws, with an older minimum age for purchase, also encourage more responsible consumption. Consider a study by Alexander Ahammer at the Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria, where anyone over 16 can legally purchase beer or wine. If stricter laws only increase the desire for booze, then you would expect Austria to have a healthier drinking culture than the US – where the minimum legal drinking age is 21. But this is not the case.

Both countries see an increase in binge drinking after someone has passed the minimum age. “But this jump was 25% higher in Austria at 16 than in USA at 21,” Ahammer says.

Waiting, in other words, seemed to have encouraged more responsible behaviour when Americans were permitted to purchase drinks legally.

Setting the legal age for drinking too high can be perceived as paternalistic (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/BBC/Getty Images)

Questioning his participants about their behaviour, Ahammer found that the Austrians’ perceptions of the dangers associated with drinking changed dramatically as they passed their sixteenth birthday. “When alcohol becomes legal, teenagers perceive it to be much less risky than before,” Ahammer says. At 16, that false sense of security could be dangerous, whereas at 21, the more mature brain is somewhat better equipped to handle its drink.

Nor does the idea of a healthy European drinking culture hold true over a lifetime. According to the World Health Organization, data indicates that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers in the European region are caused by light and moderate alcohol consumption.

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Given the scientific evidence, should governments set the legal minimum age to 25 or over – once the brain has stopped developing? Experts point out that it’s not that simple, since the public health benefits need to be balanced against people’s perceptions of personal liberty.

“I think there’s this very little public appetite for a drinking age of 25,” says James MacKillop, who studies addictive behaviour at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “High minimum legal ages are perceived as paternalistic, and they can be seen as hypocritical if the legal age of majority for voting, or the legal age to serve in the military, is 18 or 19.”

Ahammer agrees. “At some point that we should just allow people to make their own decisions.”

Instead, MacKillop suggests adolescents could be provided with better education about alcohol’s risks, and the ways that it can affect the maturing brain. “Just assuming that people will naturally develop responsible habits when it comes to these drugs is a fairly optimistic assumption,” he says.

Looking back at my adolescence, I would have been intrigued to know about my brain’s continued transformation, and the effects that my alcohol consumption could have on its wiring. I don’t expect that I would have been teetotal – I still drink today, after all, despite knowing the long-term health risks – but I might have thought twice before buying an extra round.

*David Robson is an award-winning science writer. His next book is The Laws of Connection: The Transformative Science of Being Social, to be published by Canongate (UK) and Pegasus Books (USA & Canada) in June 2024. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter, and @davidarobson on Instagram and Threads.

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Are two-part movies ripping audiences off?

From the Dune films to the new adaptation of hit musical Wicked, the trend is for big movies to be split into two instalments to tell their story. But is this what fans really want?
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A ticket to the cinema has typically guaranteed a viewing experience including a beginning, a middle and an end – all contained within one film. In recent years, however, cinematic storytelling has become a game of two halves with Hollywood serving up a string of two-part movies. These include Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune, whose second instalment hits screens today; Zach Snyder’s own space opera Rebel Moon, with Part One: A Child of Fire released on Netflix last December and Part Two: The Scargiver out in April; and Jon M Chu’s upcoming two-part adaptation of hit stage musical Wicked, itself an adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s Wizard of Oz prequel novel of the same name.

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–      Why the Wicked trailer has been slammed

Two-part films are not new, but there are certainly a lot of them these days. So why is that? The bottom line is the obvious answer, with major studios keen to squeeze as much commercial juice out of their intellectual property purchases. “If you have something you know people are excited to see and that you believe you will profit on, it makes sense to try to make twice as much net profit by dividing it into two parts,” as Franklin Leonard, film executive and founder of the annual screenplay survey The Black List, puts it to BBC Culture.

Dune Part Two finishes off the story of Frank Herbert’s book, after Part One received criticism for its anticlimactic ending (Credit: Warner Bros)

That was the case in the 2010s when several young adult franchises, based on major book series, began splitting their final instalments into two. The move proved most successful for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one made under $1bn and part two took over $1.3bn) and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (part one made approximately $712mn and part two $848mn) with built-in fans and audiences relishing the expanded time with these characters.

But the adaptation of the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, saw a significant drop in ticket sales for part two. This was likely due to the unsatisfying story delivered in its part one predecessor and, according to director Francis Lawrence, the year wait for the conclusion: “What I realised in retrospect – and after hearing all the reactions, and feeling the kind of wrath of fans, critics and people at the split – is that I realised it was frustrating,” he told People magazine last year.

Not long afterwards, Lionsgate shelved Ascendant – the second in the planned two-part finale of the Divergent film series, based on Veronica Roth’s novels – because the first part, Allegiant, proved a commercial and critical failure. Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers described the film as “another one of those cynical Hollywood cash grabs that takes the third book in bestselling juvie-lit trilogy and stretches that last book into two movies so audiences are tricked into paying twice for egregiously padded piffle.”

The commercial imperative

For Jon Thompson, British film producer and post-production consultant, that particular wave of two-parters was indicative of a studio culture, “so desperate to create revenue that they churn out carbon copies of each other”. Nowadays, he suggests the two-parter push is symptomatic of a wider pressure for studios to compete with streaming services in a bid to entice audiences with their big-screen offerings. “Almost effectively, they’re making movies on a subscription model because they’re going, “Oh well, if there’s a part one you need to see part two,” he says.

Audiences, who subscribed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its superheroes for 10 years, were rewarded with a two-part conclusion to its so-called First Phase, with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Originally titled Infinity War – Parts One and Part Two, they successfully use the cliffhanger of the Avengers losing the battle against Big Bad Thanos at the end of Infinity War, to entice fans back to see if they could ultimately win the war in Endgame. “It did exceptionally well and made everybody chomp at the bit to see the next one,” recalls Lucy V Hay, screenwriter and script editor. “Everybody was desperate to see Endgame.”

Wicked the musical will be released in two instalments – but some fans are sceptical (Credit: Universal)

George Lucas previously used this sort of storytelling model to acclaim for the second and third Star Wars films in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi: again, the narrative flowed directly from one to the other, with a cliffhanger in the middle to ensure audiences returned. However other trilogy franchises, like The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, have also used a two-parter approach for their second and third instalments (shooting them back-to-back in both cases) but with much more mixed critical results.

Curiously, both Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning were supposed to have Part Two films coming, but now that plan has been shelved, and the new films in these franchises will come by their own names to make clear they are individual films in their own right. In the case of the latter Tom Cruise-led blockbuster, that change might be due to its relatively poor box office performance. Bilge Ebiri, critic and editor at New York magazine, welcomes the change: “I love the fact that they’ve gone back and dropped the ‘Part One’ of the [Dead Reckoning] title. The story is not that important in those things, but I felt like I’d watched a full movie. It was unresolved, but it had an ending. It should have just ended on a cliffhanger that we’re then curious about.

The storytelling rationale

Beyond financial incentives, blockbuster filmmakers have championed the two-pronged approach to deliver richer and fuller stories, especially for Dune and Wicked which are both based on books set in vastly populated, fantastical worlds of sci-fi and magic. “This story’s too dense,” Villeneuve told The Times, referring to book one of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi series. “I would never make Dune as one movie. This was the only way I could succeed.” Chu made a similar defence, saying, “It would be impossible to wrestle the story of Wicked into a single film without doing some real damage to it.”

Opening up a story into two feature-length films does not suggest the scriptwriters and directors becoming lazy, but that they can afford to be more precise – Gregory Maguire

Some Wicked fans have shared their scepticism. For while the stage musical skims over a lot of the darker and more granular political detail of Maguire’s original novel, it successfully adapted it into a single two hours and 25 minutes (excluding interval) show. However Maguire believes Chu’s two-parter adaptation to be a “pertinent” approach to telling this epic story. “Quite some years ago – perhaps five or six – it was quietly proposed to me that it might arrive in two separate films. I agreed to the concept and kept my mouth shut about it,” he tells BBC Culture, adding, “Opening up a story into two feature-length films does not suggest the scriptwriters and directors [becoming] lazy, but that they can afford to be more precise, giving an exotic locale a greater chance of achieving something like verisimilitude.”

Maguire does believe this longer form of storytelling can better build the “flora, fauna and fabulousness” of a literary world like his, as well as, “make the very human drama at the centre of the story that much more immediate, urgent, and passionate”. Saying that, from what limited artwork he’s seen of the film adaptations, they haven’t quite built out the “early-industrial revolution” aesthetic from his pages, he notes. “I haven’t seen the film(s) but the Oz that seems to be on view is as candy-coloured as the original Munchkinland in the 1939 [Wizard of Oz] film, and that is less true of my Oz, which was more agrarian in the outback and more [industrial] in the urban settings. More Dickens and less Disneyland, in other words.”

The Harry Potter producers’ decision to adapt the final Deathly Hallows book as two films was a success (Credit: Alamy)

There is historical precedence for the two-parter being employed by auteurs unwilling to sacrifice the length and breadth of the narratives they want to tell. Ebiri points to Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical epic 1900 (1976) as an early example. With an original director’s cut running to an astonishing five hours 17 minutes, the film explores the friendship of landowner Alfredo Berlinghieri (De Niro) and peasant Olmo Dalcò (Depardieu) against the Italian political backdrop of fascism and communism in the early 20th Century.

When 1900 first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1976, it did so in two parts, as was Bertolucci’s wish. However, for the US market, producer Alberto Grimaldi was contractually obliged by Paramount Pictures to release it as one film, and so, after some wrangling between him and Bertolucci, they cut it down to run straight through in a 4 hour seven minute version. Nevertheless, it was still released in two parts in Italy, Denmark, Colombia, Pakistan and Japan. “The effect that movie has on people is very different in part one and part two,” Ebiri tells BBC Culture. “Part one is so lyrical, pastoral and beautiful, and part two is a flag-waving, communist epic.”

With Dune Part One, I felt like I was watching ships landing and docking for two hours. Then the story kicked in at the end, and the movie ended – Bilge Ebiri

That distinctive, bipartite narrative quality can be seen in Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2, which Quentin Tarantino had originally intended to make as one movie. Thompson, who worked on post-production on Vol 1, says the decision to expand it into two parts came during the editing process. “They realised that if they tried to make it work in two hours, it became very constrained,” he recalls. “So they extended it and shot a few more sequences. They put all the backstory in Vol 2 and then fleshed it out – It’s almost like seeing the other half of the coin.” Ebiri agrees the films work as discrete products but some of his peers at the time disagreed. “I had a lot of critic friends who aren’t keen on Vol 1 because it felt incomplete to them, which is understandable, and then Vol 2 came out and a lot of people loved it,” he says. “Not because it completed the story but because it was, narratively, more satisfying in a variety of ways. The two parts are so distinctive that nobody really thinks of it as one movie still to this day.”

Hay does point out that not all filmmakers get the sort of narrative freedom that Bertolucci, Tarantino and even Villeneuve enjoy. “They’re all considered auteurs so in that sense, they’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want, and it’s no accident that men get that kind of privilege in cinema in a way that female directors just don’t.” Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir part one and part two is one of the few examples of a female director given creative licence to deliver their story in two parts, likely in part due to Martin Scorsese’s backing as an executive producer.

Does it benefit fans?

Audiences will have to wait until November to decide whether Wicked part one makes good on Chu’s promise to “tell the story of Wicked as it was meant to be told” but while the critical consensus for Dunes part one and two has been mostly positive, there have been some caveats expressed related to its two-part format in particular. Released in 2021, towards the end of the pandemic, the first part made $434.8mn against a $165mn budget. It was praised for its awe-inspiring word-building and cinematic vision, but the biggest criticism made about it was the creative decision to serve only half of the book’s narrative arc and meanderingly plot it over a two-and-a-half-hour runtime. “This film is a curiously paradoxical achievement,” wrote Slate’s Dana Stevens. “A visual and aural marvel that is also a crashing bore.”

Kill Bill was originally planned as one movie, but became two in the edit suite (Credit: Alamy)

Dune part one’s anticlimactic ending similarly underwhelmed Ebiri. “I felt like I was watching ships landing and docking for two hours,” he tells BBC Culture. “Then the story kicked in at the end, and the movie ended. I said at the time, ‘Well, I’m not sure I liked that but I’m looking forward to Dune Part Two when the actual story kicks in.”

Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire earned far less acclaim but much of the criticism was also directed towards its curtailed plotting. “I was all for Rebel Moon as a concept when it was announced – the fact that it was [intended as] a Star Wars movie [Lucasfilm passed on Snyder’s pitch] and he made it anyway,” says Ebiri, “But you spend the first movie getting The Seven Samurai [-esque team] in place and run out of time to give us anything else. The team narrative has to work on its own as a movie and it doesn’t.”

Despite the first part’s disappointing critical response, it remains to be seen whether Rebel Moon: Part Two can save the day. Meanwhile, Dune Part Two might conclude the first Dune book’s story, but a cliffhanger ending all but confirms a sequel based on Dune Messiah, the second book, will soon follow. This sort of extended franchise cinema is of course becoming increasingly the norm. But if Hollywood does continue to split films into two, then it may need to think harder about how to make these movies satisfying in their own right, so as not to make audiences feel cheated or ripped off. “For a movie to be commercially successful, it needs either be a discrete thing that someone could watch having no knowledge of previous things or needing to watch something else,’ suggests Leonard. “Or it needs to offer enough of a compelling reason to come back for [part two]; otherwise, it’s a bust.”

Dune Part Two is in cinemas internationally now

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