Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hagley Road to Australia

From Sydney with love...

This is a picture of my new area.

It's in the Sydney district of Pyrmont (super recommended if you happen to be Down Under), and it explains why things haven't been so active on the blog in recent weeks.

So, apologies to whoever may still read this, but I've moved here for good and have been enjoying the fantastic Sydney climate.

Just imagine, it's winter time here and we've been having twenty degrees and sun. The pubs and nightlife are amazing and what they say about the Ozzies being friendly and welcoming is absolutely true!

We'll be posting again soon, once work and my new Ozzie life are all settled.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Change-Up

Gooey.

Fans of the recent strand of US comedies including the excellent Horrible Bosses and The Hangover would be mistaken to think that The Change-Up was anywhere near the same league.

Sure, it features some familiar faces and good acting. From the ever-reliable and super versatile Ryan Reynolds (Buried, The Amityville Horror), to tried-and-tested Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses, Paul, Juno) and Leslie Mann (The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Knocked Up), the cast is certainly at hand to deliver a laugh or two. Which in fact they do, especially in the promising first half.

The problem, however, is in the script. Past the first hour, the film takes an unnecessary swerve towards a syrupy morass that piles up by the minute and starts oozing more off cheese than a chunk of Stilton left to seep under the Arizona sun.

It's as if ideas had run out and the only option left was to drown the whole thing into an unwitting caricature of the worst cinematic fluff that ever came out of Hollywood.

Seriously, it becomes absolutely insufferable. Even when you think that enough violins have been unleashed out of their case and that, surely, producers and directors would now reinject some last-minute grit and comedy-value into the plot, more soppy scenes come to hit you in the face, wetter than an aqueous flannel.

Verdict? Good if you tap on the button that says STOP about an hour into it. Unwatchable after that.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Brick shithouse

Damn. I did it. Like a plonker. After days of stumbling into the name "Samantha Brick" no matter which website I'd browse, I finally clicked on the link to her original Mail article, thus adding a precious +1 to the attention-seeking lady with a personality disorder and, even worse, the Fail site. Shame on me.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Syndicate

Realism and suspense from BBC One's new excellent drama.

TV is increasingly crying out for products a little more in tune with the real world and a little less inclined to treat the British viewer like a 6-year-old imbecile on speed.

Kay Mellor's new five-part series on BBC One is a step in the right direction and a fine return to the best tradition of engaging British drama.

Starring the ever-reliable Timothy Spall (Secrets & Lies, Damned United) and rising star Matthew McNulty (Control, Looking for Eric), The Syndicate kicked off last week and suggests a promising next four episodes.

An entertaining, gritty, suspence-laden depiction of the life of five low-paid supermarket workers in Yorkshire, The Syndicate starts when the staff are broken the news that the entire store is about to close down.

And while each character is already struggling to make ends meet and juggle the maxed-out plastic, amongst a background of family tiffs and a intriguing criminal subplot comes the bombshell that the five employees won £18m on the lottery.

Which, you guessed it, far from meaning a solution to all problems is likely to precipitate things, as a sneak preview to the next four episodes indicates.

Just one detail: how can one of the character's girlfriend give birth and then go out clubbing and on the piss within 24 to 48 hours? Even for England, that's unfeasible.

But that one flaw aside, flying colours all round and a welcome change from the stifling goo of twee products and repetitive "talent" shows that have been clogging up the telly in recent months.

· The Syndicate returns on BBC One on Tuesday at 9pm.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Cliches of 2012 #3

"The labour market in countries like Spain and Italy is too inflexible".

If you could pocket a tenner each time you hear the above cliche', you'd probably be rich enough to qualify for one of George Osborne's nice tax cuts.

The same myth was perpetuated a hundred times more last week during the spectacularly superficial and Anglocentric media coverage (six-grade references to siesta and the rest) of Spain's general strike against the country's sweeping labour reforms.

Just to give you an idea, the only aspect of Rajoy's pre-Victorian reform that the the lazy British media (left and right) bothered to mention was that it will now be cheaper to fire workers. That is to say, the least unreasonable pillar of Spain's new employment legislation but - alas - a devastating one in the full context of the slew of 19th century measures imposed by Spain's right-wing government.

Not a word on the fact that now companies can unilaterally impose pay cuts (illegal in Britain), that backpay is abolished (illegal in Britain), that protection against unfair dismissals have been kicked into oblivion (coming up, in Britain), and much much worse (see here for a more detailed idea).

In Italy and Spain, the story goes, workers enjoy too much protection. In other words, the labour market is too "rigid", which is why investors are put off, and hopes of economic recovery go down the drain. Nice, simple and linear. Like most of the pap that you routinely hear from the free-market zombies.

However, it's about time this ignorant, lazy and contemptuous myth was laid to rest.

Let's start from Italy.

A bit of background will do no harm. In 2002, the old Berlusconi government passed a labour reform known as "Legge 30". The logic was that the Italian labour market was, that's right, too inflexible, and that companies should be allowed to hire and fire without red tape. "This will stimulate growth", was the messianic certainty.

Sure enough, overnight Italy saw an exponential rise in various types of casual contracts (contratti atipici, "non-standard contracts"). One of the most infamous became known as "project-based contract" (contratto a progetto).

A contratto a progetto is a legal monstrosity where an ongoing employment relation is turned into a make-believe "project" where staff are entitled to nowt: no holiday, maternity leave, sickpay, pension entitlement, notice of termination, statutory redundancy, nothing. Not even the guarantee to expect a regular wage. That would come at the employer's discretion, only on condition that "the project be fulfilled", whatever that means.

Note that any company in Italy can take on board as many workers "a progetto" as they please. Yet, most of the Anglophone press keep claiming that the Italian labour market is 'inflexible'.

On another level, when Legge 30 was brought in ten years ago, its supporters fended off criticism by saying that a contratto a progetto would constitute "good flexibility": a foot in the door of employment that would force job-seekers to "pull their finger out" and help Italy's stunted economy at last.

Nine years down the line, foreign companies are continuing to shun Italy. Quite obviously, what has been putting them off isn't the labour market, but a range of other reasons such as organised crime, clientelism, third-world infrastructure and stifling bureaucracy.

In the meantime, official figures point out that 76.3% of all employment contracts signed in Italy since the reform have been "non-standard", and that only 6% of them were ever converted into permanent ones.

Compared to ten years ago, there is now the added burden of 6 million extra workers on "precarious" contracts whose lack of employment stability makes them ineligible for mortgages. Add their chronic lack of purchasing power (most new contracts are the wrong end of 1,000 Euros per month), and you can see why the Italian economy is heading for a future of depression.

Even more dramatically, there is now a ticking bomb of millions and millions of people (today's 20 to 40-somethings) who will reach retirement age without a single Euro put aside for retirement. And that's because, in the name of flexibility, companies hiring "a progetto" pay little to nothing towards social insurance.

Yes, it's still true that the older generations may still enjoy secure contracts, but their number is dwindling and their impact on the wane, as each of them retires to be replaced one by one by a new "casual" recruit.

The picture is not dissimilar in Spain.

The only difference is that the economy there boomed like no other in the EU until 2007.

The free market zombies go on about Spain's "inflexible rules", but if that was true, how did Spain manage to create more than half all jobs in the EU in the period 2001-2006?

Many of them, of course, were temporary (the Spaniards call them contratos basura, "throwaway contracts"). Statistics at the end of 2009 showed that the number of Spanish workers on contratos temporales was well ahead of the rest of the EU, especially amongst the young.

Again, companies have been free to hire virtually as many people as they wanted, all on contratos basura, and all without fear of crippling statutory payouts. In 2006, the unions denounced that "almost 90% of new contracts for the young [were] temporary". Which may begin to explain Spain's mental unemployment rates the moment the crisis kicked in, as tons of people were dismissed at the drop of a hat, so much for "rigid labour market".

Of course, Spain's labour reform is doing nothing to address those problems.

Sure, it cuts the ground under the feet of the most protected workers by considerably weakening their protection. But, crucially, in return it offers nothing - not a shred of an improvement - at the most precarious end of the labour market, that is to say, the increasing masses of young and impoverished people with little to no spending power to contribute to the economy.

By introducing unilateral pay cuts, uncertainty is now virtually extended to the entire population. No wonder even consumer groups supported Spain's general strike last week.

Who will give any of them a mortgage if more and more people will only be able to show their bank managers an employment contract that can be ended or mangled on a whim?

How's that supposed to kickstart the economy and avoid an unprecedented depression?

Tory clowns, civil liberties...

...and u-turns so pathetic that you're left wondering if this government is for real.

Remember when Tories and LibDem alike were rinsing their gob with attacks on New Labour's "erosion of civil liberties", "Big Brother Britain", "ZaNuLabour" and the rest?

That was one of their key points as they were conning the whole population throughout the 2010 campaign and their first few weeks in power.

Well. Just like the joke-like bonanza of lies covering anything from NHS plans to VAT, tuition fees, tax, the minimum wage and the rest, the Conservatives have now come up with this gem: "The government will be able to monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK under new legislation set to be announced soon", reports the BBC today.

And the justification? "Tackling crime and terrorism", says the Tory-led Home Office. Of course. What. A. Bunch. Of . Clowns.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Power, arrogance and Bradford

George Galloway's triumph meant a kick in the nuts for Labour. But look at the childish Tory reaction to their own humiliation.

They lost 24% of the votes in less than two years and went from calling Bradford a "winnable seat" to scrambling a pathetic 8.4% in Thursday's byelection.

And now Baroness "cuh-ts" Warsi, one of the most grating politicians around, doesn't even have the dignity to do a bit of soul searching about the Tories' disastrous performance. Nah.

All she could manage was the childish: "This is a Labour seat, has been for many, many decades and last night they lost it in spectacular fashion". Which may be true, but she could do with at least acknowledging that the Tory vote in the area melted into diarrhea like never before.

Which is exactly the kind of petty, pointscoring arrogance that is making this Tory government more unpopular by the minute.

In the meantime, while this blog is no big fan of George Galloway, we say fair play to him. These are times of unprecedented attacks against ordinary people's living standards and workers' rights.

And, with his spectacular victory, Galloway in the Commons (if he does bother to turn up) is a better guarantee than yet another New Labour robot tiptoeing around the issues that matter.

To quote excellent blogger Madam Miaow, "if Labour doesn't like Galloway then the solution is easy. Start doing your job so Galloway doesn't have to". Wise words.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tax, cigarettes and government logic

The Tories' amazingly selective notion of "people taking much greater steps than anticipated to avoid paying the tax".

You may have heard the feeble and glaze-eyed argument from government ministers that the 50p tax is being abolished on the grounds that it raised "next to nothing".

Let's leave aside the semantics of defining £1.1bn as "next to nothing". And let's also forget the fact that in no other field would a government come up with such a sweeping judgement so prematurely, after just twelve months from introducing whatever measure.

Let's just concentrate on how crook-eyed this government can be.

On one side, Tory George Osborne is so cocksure about the 50p rate "not bringing in enough money" and "forcing" the wealthy away from Britain, so he gets rid of it. Fine.

Except that, on the other, he increases by 8% an already sky-high tobacco tax even though HMRC already said that "smuggling and crossborder shopping cost HM Treasury up to £3.6 billion in lost tax revenue in 2009/10".

How does it work?

How can they think that a tax that was at least bringing in £1.1bn can be scrapped on the basis that "some wealthy people took much greater steps than anticipated to avoid paying the tax", while another that is costing the government £3.6bn in lost revenues (that is to say, tons of people sidestepping it) gets jacked up even more?

How can the notion that "people taking much greater steps than anticipated to avoid paying the tax" be applied so selectively?

PS. Note that this blogger is not a smoker and that he's not discussing the merits of either tax. I actually agree that tobacco should be taxed given its direct burden on the NHS. The point is the ridiculousness of the Tories' illogic.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cliches of 2012 #2

"Our young people are too fussy when it comes to jobs".

...And the evidence for that would be...?

Jack, of course, because it's the typical sweeping generalisation that you hear with increasing frequency from the kind of people who 1) don't appreciate their luck and 2) have a tendency to hear one anecdote and generalise.

Like "media personality" Janet Street Porter, or Frank Field MP on last Thursday's BBC Question Time - the latter telling the story of some stroppy kids grunting that for less than £300 a week they wouldn't even consider a job.

And so the Daily Mailers of this world hear an anecdote or two like that, and voila'...the hundreds of thousands of young people toiling away for shit wages in assorted pubs, supermarkets, Greggs, Starbucks and the rest turn into ghosts.

And so does the increasing army of bogus "self-employed" people, many of them youngsters with no pension rights, sickpay or holiday pay (check out the hairdressers trade, for an idea), forced to call themselves "self-employed" just so that their employer can dodge national insurance and every other obligation.

Not to mention, the millions whose email inbox these days contains more job rejection messages than spam. Because, in case you didn't know, it's official news that in parts of Britain "[a]lmost 80 unemployed people are chasing each job".

Nah. You heard it. Janet Street Porter said it. "Our young people are too fussy when it comes to jobs". "They don't try hard enough". "They're picky". "They don't pull their finger out".

I don't know about you. But I don't know one single person who would accept a job only if strictly related to their dreams. That isn't to say that there's no fussy people out there. But, far from the cliche', most people are quite happy to shelve their dreams for bar work, call centre jobs, zero-hour contracts, or anything that comes their way. That's in the real world, especially these days.

And you can be sure Janet wouldn't like it if cliches were thrown about that people develop her kind of mindest from hanging around too many golf clubs or "dinner parties". And where, while munching on a canape or two, you hear anecdotes from some other media guru whose posh kid called Camilla, Rupert or Hubert is still travelling around the world while waiting for the perfect job offer to follow their successful degree in PR.

Generalisations: don't they just sound hateful?

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 Ceauşescu 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.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodóvar's latest must-see is one of the best films of 2011.

The last ten years have seen Spain reaffirming itself as the most productive breeding ground for top quality cinema.

Álex de la Iglesia (La Habitacion del Niño), Guillem Morales (Los Ojos de Julia), Jaume Balagueró (REC, Fragile), Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) and Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) are only a handful of directors typifying Spain's current cinematic run of form.

And that's without counting, of course, one of country's most celebrated film-makers, Pedro Almodóvar (of Volver fame), whose latest film The Skin I Live In (original title La Piel Que Habito) is one of his most remarkable ever.

Put bluntly, Almodóvar's films are generally weird. But I mean good and watchable weird. Never pretentious or self-indulgent, let alone overly arty and elitist, which is this blog's pet hate. You can watch almost every Almodóvar film and expect the seediness and the various quirks along the way to finally make sense at some point.

By the time you've spotted the twist coming or have clocked it altogether, the story will have drawn you in so much that you'll simply want to find out how or why right until the very end.

Given how rich and carefully textured the plot is, there's not much we can reveal about The Skin I Live In. Even the slightest clue may easily turn into the most irritating of spoilers.

The film is in one go horror, psychological thriller, crime, film noir, and distorted love melodrama as well. All the while, underlying ethical questions are posed over the extent to which Frankenstein-like medicine can go.

But, while most directors would have lost the plot trying to juggle too many genres at the same time, Almodóvar pulls it off handsomely.

His rich colours and obsessive themes are not, unlike many other directors, cheap gimmicks, fillers or clever tricks. They are integral part of his narrative.

The film is also the moment when Antonio Banderas, one of Spain's most famous actors, reaffirms his acting credentials. Often slammed as wooden, here he's absolutely superb, oozing mystery and charisma and carrying the whole weight of the film from start to finish.

Watch The Skin I Live In and you'll lose yourself into its slow but intense pace and into its intriguing and relentless buildup, while the different ends of the same web gradually come together against a backdrop that is both creepy and fascinating at the same time.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Rite

Add a 't' in front of the title and you get the general idea.

How many films can be made about exorcists and possessed women (and why is it always the women, by the way, have you noticed...?) swearing in several languages before people realise that it's totally useless?

How many times, before producers actually decide to pack it in and focus their attention and cash elsewhere? The troubled, sceptical priest under the guidance of an older, wiser maverick. The mandatory car accident. The chained sweaty woman telling them both to fuck off. In Latin too. The cross and the prayers, the spitting and the red eyes, the premonitions, the insects and the lot...

This one here comes about 35 years too late, as it would only matter to those few souls who never watched The Exorcist and its multiple spin offs and rip offs.

If there's one thing the makers of The Rite got almost 100% right, that was the film title. They forgot to add the letter 't' in front of "Rite". Then it would have made sense, Anthony Hopkins or not.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Vanishing on 7th Street

When the apocalypse is so dull that you can't wait for it to come.

There's an unwritten rule in cinema, etched in capital letters, as old as the first reel to reel.

And it goes as follows. The fact that a director may have been behind a decent film and the fact that a story plot may also sound vaguely intriguing are no guarantee of a good film.

Brad Anderson may have been the man behind both Session 9 and The Machinist, and his latest Vanishing on 7th Street may also sound like your perfect so-called "post-apocalyptic" story. Unfortunately though, it's painfully weak as well as way too flimsy and badly acted to actually go anywhere.

For all the amount of semi-deserted, mysterious-looking and Twin Peak-esque scenes set in an old neon-lit bar, the plot is simply too feeble and anemic (yes, thanks thesaurus) to strike any chord with the viewer.

Not to mention that Hayden Christensen and the other actors are so wooden that, put next to Pinocchio, they would positively make him look like Plastic Man.

Which wouldn't be so bad were it not for the fact that character development is below zero.

The thrills evaporate after about fifteen minutes as you quickly realise that a single episode of the Teletubbies will carry more suspense than this pap.

What seem to be the only four survivors to a mysterious plague that snatches people away, are just sitting there, fiddling with ice cubes and fuel, and periodically wailing that they have lost their kid/mum/colleagues/ex wife.

That's all they seem to be saying. And after you've heard the same lines 7 times in a row you just start hoping for the entity to put the inept four out of their misery once and for all.

As for the apocalypse, it must be the most docile one to be ever conjured up by a cinematic mind.

The same monstrous thing that hits people in an instant in the first part of the film, is later on so slow that even a snail would crawl back to safety once they twig that they're about to be snatched.

Vanishing on 7th Street is like a fantastic initial idea that crashed into the worst of writer's blocks within ten minutes.

Which, given how crowded the post-apocalyptic genre is starting to look, makes this film even more redundant.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Facebook statuses debunked*

Type one- Bored shitless

- "Enjoying the evening at home with a candle. Nice to have some chillout time!...xxx"
- "Had lovely day in the garden. Wonderful............."

So painful that you can actually feel their boredom. Such nothingness rammed down their Facebook friends' throats on a half hourly basis is only parallel to their stunted social skills.

Type two- Reaction seeker

- "Omg...Worst travelling experience ever. Stuck in traffic for 5 hours :-(...."
- "I love my family and friends VERY VERY much. You know who you are and you are very special people...."

Saddos in this category are obviously motivated by instant online gratification. Also, they're clearly gagging for replies which will inevitably consist of a flurry of "awwww" or "u alright hunni?xxx" in the first instance and "awww bless you" and "love u2 babes, u r sooo special to me 2 xxxx" for the second.

Type three- Attention seeker

- "........Wish it had never happened.....:-( "
- ".......Thanks XYZ for making me very happy......."

The above statuses are obviously an attempt to compensate lack of attention/affection during childhood. And sure enough, various Facebook friends will deliver the goods with a battery of "why?what happened????" or "...wow...what did XYZ do?..."

Type four- Spamming musician

- "Playing solo 2moro at the Bull & Gate supporting XYZ. Free entry!!!!!Get there early!!!!"
- "[my band] at [venue] tomorrow at 9pm.....Come and see us!!!!Club night to follow!"

This is the type of chap who'd invite you to gigs even if it's 600 miles away from where you live. No wonder their statuses tend to remain woefully ignored. Not afraid to constantly spam everyone on their "friends" list, 90 per cent of their social interaction consists of generally talking AT people about their band and, of course, "come to my gig next Friday".

Type five- Look at my baby

- "Little Jaden won't stop playin up. Cant get any sleep!!!!"
- "Cant believe my princess is 3 months today. Love u xxxxxxx"

Normally women, these have a tendency to change one part of their moniker to accomodate words like "proud mummy" or "happy mummy". Also, they're totally oblivous to how annoying they are with their relentless bombardment of trivial anecdotes of their little ones enjoying their new toys. As if anybody else gave a flying fuck. Not to mention the onslaught of their kids' photos. This type tend to be particularly unbearable round Christmas time.

Type six - The proto ironic one-liner

- "If the mayans were so good at predicting the future they'd still be here"
- "theres a guy in kings heath who puts a monkey in a pushchair"

These people (generally blokes) usually spend around ten to fifteen minutes conjuring up the wittiest possible contribution. They love to be thought of as witty, funny and hilarious, even though they aren't. Often twistedly double ironic and cryptic, they're also known for their penchant for posting bizarre pictures and plays on words. As long as it nets them comments.

Type seven- The "profound" cut and pasters

- "♥ Peace is not found elsewhere, it comes from within ♥"
- "Don't get confused between my personality and my attitude. My personality is who I am, my attitude depends on who you are ★☆★☆★☆".

Such specimens normally stuff their list of favourite pages with crassness like "Without Ant&Dec I'm a Celebrity is not worth watching", "Dont take a good woman for granted", "someday someone will come along and appreciate what you didnt" or "support Our Boys in Iraq/Afghanistan"....

* This post doesn't mean that this blogger has never been guilty of any of the above.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

From letters to grunts

Why vocal chords may go the wisdom tooth way as we increasingly interact by means of online grunts...

Once upon a time people living in different places would send each other letters. Maybe once a month, perhaps every fortnight, valuable time was devoted to the penning of what they'd been up to and all the important updates.

Then came the net and letters quickly gave way to emails. By the late 1990s, most people owned an email address, though it's difficult to believe that back then they often consisted of arcane combinations of letters and words like CXC765@spp2network1.dick.ac.uk

The physical ritual of opening a letter may have been on the retreat, but the concept remained nonetheless: suddenly people would spot new emails in their "inbox" folder. If anything, there was a chance to communicate more quickly and more frequently.

Fast forward less than ten years and the concept of "social networks" (read Facebook) rang the death knell for good old-fashioned emails. Private messages became increasingly rickety as less and less was there to be said, given that constant "updates" and "wall pictures" of everybody's latest night out meant little was left to the imagination.

By 2011, with the advent of iPhones and iWhatsits, most "distance" communication turned even more stunted.

Most Facebook interaction now consists of some people constantly publishing statuses (ie "omg my nephew's so cute!....xxxxxxx" or "fucks sake, stinky bloke nxt2me on bus") which is then followed by regular rounds of Facebook friends "liking" them (by simply clicking on a thumbs up button) or, if they feel more dexterous with the keyboard, leaving comments ranging from "wow", "xxx" or "awwwww" to "OMG!".

Who knows. Perhaps the toll of said levels of stunted interaction on human evolution will be such that, in a few centuries, our vocal chords will go the wisdom tooth way and turn out too undeveloped to articulate proper words.

It may be that we even go full circle and return to caveman sounds, with our exchanges (whether in person or online), consisting of thumbs up, "OMG" groans, "lovely" grunts and scratching chk chk sounds emanating from the palate which, of course, will convey a round of "xxxxxxxxxx" in pure Facebook style.

As for the answer to "wat u bin up2" (if we manage to articulate that, that is), we'll just shove a proto-phone in front of our interlocutor's eyes and show them how we pulled faces to the iCamera in a nightclub.