Sunday, February 26, 2012

This Must Be The Place

Impenetrably arty, or just a load of nothingness?

What is it with arty film directors?

It makes you wonder if their default way of operating consists in shooting their film first, followed by sessions with arty mates and colleagues looking for conceated ways of coating their product in a load of wierdness and randomness.

And at the end of it, do they talk to each other about things like "metaphysical hyperrealism" so that they can feel sophisticated?

Contempt for the ordinary viewer, however, is certainly something they fail to take into account.

Blatantly so in the case of This Must Be The Place, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and one of the winners, god knows how, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

The film is double frustrating for a number of reasons.

Sean Penn's amazing acting feels wasted, for starters. Perfect in his portrayal of retired (and bored) goth rockstar Cheyenne (looks modelled after The Cure's Robert Smith, one of this blog's heroes), Penn confirms his talent for versatility. Pity that he's wallowing in a sea of nothingness here.

And that's because the story plot is so weak that it comes crumbling down the moment it's apparent that the film is about very little was it not for a lot of beautiful photography, cultivated shots and intriguing landscapes.

Other than that, it's like trying to bake a cake with water being the only ingredient.

They could have expanded on Cheyenne's relationship with his estranged parents, or anything about his past, or present, or even future, or any of the side characters that are churned out every five minutes and then kicked into oblivion for no apparent reason.

Instead the plot errs from handing David Byrne a bit of self publicity, to bits and pieces about a local lady mourning her missing son, or even Cheyenne's mate going on about his sexual prowess.

Until, 50 minutes into it, an improbable stab at hunting Nazi war criminals becomes - but not too much - the purpose of the film.

And if that wasn't random enough, there's two-a-penny unconnected references to anything from wheeled suitcases, to ping pong, to blokes jumping into your car asking for a lift only to get dropped off thirty seconds later. Of course, for no apparent reason, aside from showing a stunning shot of the New Mexico desert. Camera held diagonally, of course.

Now, no doubt this blog's being ignorant. No doubt, director Paolo Sorrentino and whoever co-wrote the script had in mind some grand reference to the alienation of the globalised world or other self-aggrandizing coincidental double meaning.

And we're all up for a load of substance. But when you have to practically give yourself a brain transplant to try and grasp what a film is on about, then it's quite obvious something doesn't add up.

In short, very disappointing.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cliches of 2012 #1

"Labour failed to regulate the banks"

You hear it whenever Tories open their gob to comment on one of the most odious side effects of the financial crisis: that is, bankers' bonuses and pisstake-like pay and share packages.

"Labour failed to regulate the banks", they shout, like a broken record.

And, yes, no-one disputes that: indeed Labour failed to regulate the banks.

But here's the thing, Tories. You're about to enter your third year in power, so just stop moaning and do something about it.

Except that you won't. You won't because you don't think they should be regulated in the slightest, but you don't have the guts to openly say it.

More, you actually cheered when Labour failed to regulate the banks. You approved of it, which is why you never said a word about it throughout the decades of binge or around the time Baron Mandelson was gobbing off that the filthy rich excited him.

Do you really think, Tories, that the British public are so stupid to believe that you wouldn't have batted an eyelid if Labour had done what they should have during their tenure in government?

Isn't it more likely that even the most feeble attempt at regulating would have been met by the usual hysterical kicking and screaming about "socialism", "loonie lefties" and the rest?

After all, guess who it was who deregulated them in the first place? That's right, the Tories (see here).

Because that's what you do for a living. You champion policies that favour the super-rich and your job is to sugar coat them in populism, smokescreens and a lot of cheek.

So just know, Tories, that when you produce outrage from one orifice, but then mumble from the other that bankers' bonuses are necessary (like Tory minister Ed Vaizey did on last Thursday's BBC Question Time), the picture that comes out is a pathetic one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Super 8

An evening you won't get back.

If you succumb to the idea of watching Super 8 on the grounds that it was directed by the same bloke behind both Lost and Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams, and that it was produced by Steven Spielberg too, remember it's an evening of your life you will never get back.

And it's a mild shame because the nostalgia theme in Super 8 is done with taste, the premises are interesting (a bunch of kids turning unwitting witnesses to a mysterious train crash) and there are also some endearing comical moments.

Until, that is, that so-very-American irresistible temptation for grand special effects done in the style of dick measuring kicks in, and it's suddenly like Spielberg and Abrams decided to do some self-parody.

Cue aliens, monsters and giant-insects-cum-octopuses building a supergalactic spaceship while everybody stares with their finger pointed and a falling star too manages to get into the picture courtesy of some good timing.

However, don't take our word for it.

You may fancy watching an unfeasible adventure consisting of ET cross with War of the Worlds for primary school kids with a sprinkle of Stand by Me or any Stephen King-inspired stuff after he got into multiple-eyed monsters turning into walking spiders disguised as the sheriff... In which case, Super 8 will be most enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Grayling the job snob

So Chris Grayling, the Tory (Un)employment minister is now officially on record saying that those criticising multi-billion companies like Tesco for milking free labour at the expense of the taxpayer are actually "job snobs".

Except that goes to show that the undisputed "job snobs" are actually warped Tory minds a-la Chris Grayling himself, IDS or their colleagues in the government, given that they quite clearly believe that those jobs are so shit and those workers are so shit that they don’t even deserve to be paid at minimum wage rates.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Contagion

The best hypochondriac film since Cassandra Crossing.

They say that the mark of a good film is when it still affects you days after watching it.

In which case, just hope you don't sneeze, or cough, or that your legs don't itch, or that you don't get a mouth ulcer, not even one, in the week after you watch Contagion.

And that's because we're talking here Hollywood's contribution to hypochondria to a scale that not even the makers of the Daily Mail and their infamous SORE THROAT headline could possibly begin to comprehend.

Except that, unlike the ugly Mail, Contagion is beautifully done, with each of its subplots so involving that it really will pin you to your seat, kleenex in hand, from start to finish.

A combination of director Steven Soderbergh's skilfully minimalistic work as well as some top quality acting from a star-studded cast including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow will seriously make you believe that that dick of a bloke coughing right on your face on the bus may have just kickstarted the biggest outbreak of meningoencephalitic virus known to man. And bat.

A must see.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sainsbury's, not Tesco

Don't let anyone say that consumer choice is dead.

Oh the beauty of British consumer society.

If the government don't want to listen, because they know better anyway (even though most of the cabinet never did any proper work like most mortals have to), at least it's great that mild consumer pressure was enough to get Waterstones, TK Maxx and Sainsbury's to withdraw from the Tory government's "Workfare" scheme.

Lest you forget, the "Workfare" scheme consists in allowing a free-of-charge taxpayer-funded supply of staff to multi-billion pounds companies in the name of free market.

In other words, those who lost their job are penalised twice.

One, by paying national insurance for decades to help them out against potential future redundancies.

Two - now - thanks to this inept government, by forcing them to work for the benefit of a company that made "pre-tax half-year profits of £1.9billion in 2011".

Which takes us to Tesco. A place where this blog was hardly shopping anyway because we always thought that Sainsbury's looks less shoddy and their marketing is a touch less aggressive (and their logo matches the colour of this blog, which is no mean feat) .

But if there was the odd occasion when we couldn't be arsed to walk the long way for a carton of milk and Tesco in Five Ways was the quickest option, now no chance.

And by the look of it, tens of thousands of customers are ready to do the same. Don't let anyone say that consumer choice is dead.

Every little helps, right?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why employment reforms are a warning for workers all over Europe

Depressing salaries, free dismissals and other gems: Spain's right-wing solution to the economic crisis.

The Spanish trade unions have labelled it "the harshest and most aggressive employment legislation [of the post-Franco era]".

Opposition parties are already planning to appeal to the country's highest judicial body, Tribunal Constitucional, on the grounds that it may be in breach of the most basic rights.

No-one can deny that Spain's new labour reforms, announced last week by the new arch-conservative government led by Mariano Rajoy (photo), are causing a political stir that is threatening to shake the country's foundations.

The background is that a combination of Spain's scary unemployment rate (just under 23%, the highest in the Eurozone) and the country's worst economic crisis in generations, handed the centre-right People's Party a landslide victory in last November's election.

And while everyone agreed that measures had to be taken, it now looks like the priority is simply a massive raid against workers' rights - the same rights that didn't stop the country from creating more than half of all the new jobs in the EU in the period 2000-2006.

Indeed, when People's Party leader Rajoy was asked to explain his plans during the election campaign, he repeated that he would "never" attack workers' rights or "make it cheaper to fire workers". He even posted a Twitter message to ram the point home.

Yet, a mere 55 days later, the total opposite has happened.

This should concern workers all over Europe, because the "Rajoy method" may inspire right-wing governments and rampant "free marketeers" in other countries too.

Here are some of the reasons why:

1. Companies can now unilaterally impose a pay cut.

While this is still illegal in Britain, on the grounds that it would amount to a breach of contract under the Employment Rights Act 1996, for the first time since 1889 the new Spanish law will now allow bosses to "modify" their staff's salary without agreement.

This can be applied collectively or to specific members of staff and - check this out - the new law states that this can be done simply "if there are proven economic, technical, organisational or productive reasons", which is extremely ambiguous and is an open door to abuse.

For instance, a company now needs to quote losses (any losses, it doesn't matter how much) over two consecutive quarters in order to slash their staff's wages until further notice and nearly as much as they like, even if the following quarter brings about record profits.

The only constraints are that they're required to notify it at least 15 days in advance and that they can't go under the statutory minimum wage, which in Spain is €641 per month.

2. Employers can unilaterally modify their staff's working hours or even tasks as decribed in the contract.

Again, all they need to do is tell the hapless worker 15 days in advance citing the above-mentioned catch-all "economic, technical, organisational or productive reasons". If the employee doesn't like his new timetable, let alone new "duties and responsibilities", all he needs to do is grab his coat and hope for the following point.

3. Firing workers is now up to 71,5% cheaper than until the other day.

Admittedly, Spain had one of the most expensive payout packages in Europe (45 days per year worked up to a maximum of 3 and 1/2 years). This was often branded the reason for the country's endemic use of casual and temporary contracts, often the easiest way to sidestep legal restrictions.

However, in one fell swoop, workers will now be entitled to 20 days per year of service, up to a maximum of one year - that is almost three quarters cheaper than it used to be.

4. Back pay is abolished.

If a dismissal is deemed "unfair" by a judge, the company will only have to fork out a payout and no longer the so-called "back pay" (which is the salaries corresponding to a worker between the time he was dismissed and the time a favourable award is obtained from an employment tribunal).

5. Probationary periods are now extended to one year.

While Rajoy's ministers keep mouthing off that the new reform is an incentive for bosses to offer "permanent contracts", critics point out that these are only "permanent" in name.

And that's because trial periods are now also doubled from 6 months to one year.

That is to say, for one full year, an employee can have their contract terminated for no reason and with no right to notice or payout. Note that pregnant women too, until the other day covered by protection against "unfair dismissal", can now be sacked absolutely free during the first 12 months.

Which is why the new "permanent contract" Rajoy-style hands the worker even less protection than the old "temporary" one (which at least included the right to a payout of 8 days per year worked).

As for employees in the UK, we can only hope that at least some of Rajoy's measures are blocked by the Constitutional Court, or that their predictably depressing effect on the Spanish economy (mass salary cuts are already under way) will be enough to put off our own government.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Descendants

George Clooney's performance of a lifetime.

One of the main contenders at the forthcoming Academy Awards is the excellent The Descendants.

In common with his former films (About Schmidt, Sideways), Alexander Payne's The Descendants shares the same reflective mood, serene pace and a contagious, almost 'old school'-like, eye for character development.

But the biggest bonus here is George Clooney's stunning performance.

Nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, Clooney smoothly impersonates Matt King, a wealthy family-trust administrator and practising laywer on a Hawaiian island.

King is grappling with a few demons, chiefly the fact that his wife Elizabeth is laying comatose in a hospital following a boat accident. He's now going to look after two daughters that he barely knows how to handle. Plus, if things weren't complicated enough, he finds out that, right before the time of her accident, his wife was having a full-blown affair.

Caught between a major family crisis and emotional turmoil, King decides to confront his wife's lover, a successful real estate broker (Matther Lillard, the murderer from Scream).

This in turn will kickstart a rollercoaster of emotions and assorted mess which will result in one of the most endearing dark comedy dramas of the year - and any further is bound to be tantamount to blatant spoilers.

Quite simply, excellent.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Are some people simply born with sociopathic tendencies?

Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of the 2003 novel of the same name is one of the most disturbing films you'll ever get a chance to see.

To put it bluntly, don't watch it if you feel you're already losing hope about the state of humanity, or if you are more than a touch puzzled by the ongoing normalisation of nastiness across all levels of society (the pathetic sociopaths behind Unilad being the latest recruits).

And that's because, pouring fresh blood (literally) in the century-long debate about nature vs nurture, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a frighteningly poignant depiction of what happens when somebody is born completely devoid of empathy and humanity.

For all the protestations that it's the environment that shapes you, that unloving or dysfunctional parents are bound to have an impact, that good education improves your chances of smoothing out deranged tendencies, and so on -and all of the above most certainly counts - some people are just born evil.

And this evil little shit, Kevin, Tilda Swinton's creepy son in one of the most compelling films that came out in 2011, is testament to that.

Yet, even more disturbing than the movie itself are some of the comments accompanying the review on IMDb.

According to some, the fact that Kevin's birth was unplanned, or that Tilda Swinton's character didn't insist on seeking medical help earlier on, or that she was a bit cold and disdainful, are all supposed to be the crucial factors behind this younger and more manipulative version of Patrick Bateman turning into a serial killer.

Except that, if you follow that line of thought, then you'll be able to justify the most heinous of crimes. Especially given that probably less than 0.01% of the world's population has the privilege of a perfect ubpringing (and what is "the perfect upbringing" anyway).

Most kids don't get enough cuddles and some get too many. Some people may have absent fathers or messed-up mothers, some the other way round, some both and some neither.

Yet, thankfully, the greatest majority of us don't live an existence solely aimed at being horrible to other people without harbouring even a shred of empathy at the most basic human level.

All of which proves what an amazingly stimulating film We Need To Talk About Kevin is. The subject-matter may explore the darkest realms of the human psyche, but a combination of fantastic acting (Swinton could easily have been nominated for an Oscar) and genius plot structure will most certainly leave you still thinking about it for days.

Which, ultimately, is always the sign of a good film.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Communism, British style

Who said that old Soviet-style policies were dead and buried?

Far from common belief, by the look of things Stalin and their mates got almost everything right, as state intervention and soviet-style policies seem to be all the rage again.

Sod the free market and the idea that "big government" should refrain from stepping in.

Remember the old criticism that workers in the old Eastern bloc were paid for doing FA and that there was no incentive to productivity?

Well, we've got that galore again. Except, here, now, in Britain. For the very few.

Look at the humongous salaries and bonuses dished out at the top, no matter whether profits or losses are made. Mama Government will be there to cover their backside, no matter what, which is why Barclays can afford to announce a drop in profits and still shower executives with bonuses and payouts the equivalent of a small nation's GDP (see here, here, and here for details).

But socialism for the rich also comes in the guise of subsidised work for the nation's supermarkets. Just like the old Konsum chain in the ex-DDR, the state is also making sure that subsidised staff (or "correctional labour", as the old USSR used to brand it) are readily provided.

Take a butchers at our very own Tesco, Asda, Poundland and other multi-billion making corporations. Why should they risk recruiting staff on the market, if they can fill their boots with state-subsidised workers who will readily stack their shelves for free (the exception of course, being the greedy pro-free marketeers at Waterstones, who recently dared to declare that the state should not interfere with recruitment policies).

And if you thought that was enough, the British state is now also steamrollering into old people's private lives.

Taking a leaf out of communist Romania, where Nicolae Ceau┼čescu forced 70,000 men and women to leave their homes and work in the mines, our own Chairman of the Central Committee of Great Britain, Comrade David Cameron, is pushing for old people to move out of their homes and into smaller places. Not only that, he also knows better than anyone and he thinks the government should nudge them into work well into their seventies - lest they feel lonely.

Like the Telegraph reported yesterday, the "government is accused of 'social engineering' over plans to make the elderly move out of their homes".

Sixty years from his death, Stalin must be smiling his head off. His policies crossed not just the iron curtain, but the channel too.