Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Best Moment of 2011

The scandal that brought the most vicious media thugs to their knees.

The notion that nature will eventually run its course, even when it comes to the humbling of the most brutal bullies, came to a belated realisation with the News of the World scandal.

What a picture, to see that particular brand of vicious, foamin-at-the-mouth, self-righteous faux-moralistic fury turning on its own creators.

The succession of the nastiest bullies in the British media tumbling like sacks of rubbish in a garbage truck was just amazing: the arrest of Andy Coulson, the fall of Rebekah Brooks, News Corp withdrawing its BSkyB bid, and finally the News of the World going to the wall, while the two Murdoch thugs pathetically feigned amnesia in the background.

The phone-hacking scandal was just waiting to happen. When somebody's power to bully and intimidate with such impunity is allowed to fester to such poisonous proportions, it's just a matter of time til the putrefying boil bursts.

No doubt soon things will settle and hordes of dimwits are already stuffing their gob with the notion that tabloid thuggery (ie the indiscriminate phone hacking of murdered children, dead soldiers and grieving relatives) is none other than "free press".

But for a moment, just a moment, it was nice to see journalism in the UK back to a version of itself that doesn't resemble a cross between Shaun of the Dead and The Wicker Man.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Paper Mask

British cinema's hidden gem.

This little-known British noir is testament to the fact that inflated Hollywoodian budgets are irrelevant when it comes to quality.

Unfortunately though, Paper Mask is also evidence that, no matter how good a film, without marketing machinery there's no chance of making it beyond -at best- a Channel Four 11 o'clock slot.

And that's how I first came across Christopher Morahan's hidden gem. It must have been at least fifteen years ago, late night at home while flicking through the channels only minutes away from hitting the sack.

I don't know what in particular, but Paper Mask grabbed my attention straight away. Mysterious without being contrived, minimalistic without being arty, chilling and disturbing without ever going over the top. Within a moment, I was hooked.

It's the story of a frustrated hospital porter (glib-tongued Martin, the excellent Paul McGann of Withnail and I fame) who, in a moment of madness, decides to steal the identity of a recently passed away surgeon.

The thing is, said doctor had just applied for a job elsewhere, meaning that it was the perfect chance for Martin to burn bridges and start with a clean slate, a door to prestige and riches that a lowly orderly would only be able to dream of otherwise.

Needless to say, however, Martin is heading for collision course. Aside from a vague familiarity with hospitals, the guy just isn't a doctor, which means a succession of wincing mishaps are constantly round the corner.

Yet his charming ways help him cajole nurse Christine (Amanda Donohoe, from Nicolas Roeg's Castaway) which, for Martin, would prove a godsend. At least for the time being.

Paper Mask guarantees suspence from start to finish. While the viewer is constantly wondering what is going to happen next, the concept is so subtle and original that you may even end up sympathizing with such a manipulative and dislikeable protagonist.

Alas, chances are you've never heard of this film.

Twenty years after it came out, there are rumours of a forthcoming DVD release which, if true, would finally hand one of the best thrillers to ever hail from the UK a belated chance to be enjoyed by the wider public.

A must-see if you can manage to grab hold of it.

Monday, March 28, 2011


"Face your deepest fears", says the tagline. That's right. You may have just wasted your money on the most useless film ever.

A few years ago my friends and I got into the habit of buying naff knockdown price DVDs for a laugh.

Two spring to mind, an American B-horror called The Dentist and an even worse one sporting the unbeatable title The Nosepicker. Proper cheap cheap cheap tacky dim-witted crap. We were pissing ourselves laughing at the crassness of the acting, the story, the soundtrack.

But it was great. There is something uniquely endearing about rubbish films.

In the unlikely event you may have heard of 2010's Basement, please be warned that it does not even make it into the above-described category. We are talking about something else here. Levels of nothingness that not even the most cynical of viewers could have anticipated.

Basement is the equivalent of being served a completely rancid dinner at a restaurant. Or the equivalent of buying a new suit only to discover that it's made of meat wrappers selotaped together.

What is unbelievable is the idea that someone, somewhere, thought that this thing could be knocked together, let alone produced, and that nobody along the way was honest enough to tell the director, the screenwriter, the producers or whoever that perhaps jacking it in would have been a more dignified move.

There's no danger of a spoiler because this film is about nothing. In theory the premises are interesting, not miles away from The Hole: a group of people are lost in the woods and end up in a dark and creepy basement. "Wow", you'd think, "Great!".

No it isn't. Because that's where it all ends. You wait and wait while the characters redraw the boundaries of the expression "dead end" and, within half hour, it's quite obvious that nowt's ever gonna happen.

The rest is some sort of tedious, repetititive, shallow, unengaging and inconsequential bilge. It goes nowhere. It says nothing. It's not even dumb. I guess it's the closest a film ever got to representing the concept of nothingness which, in a way, you could argue is actually an achievement.

Oh, and by the way, the acting is the worst ever. By far. Times ten.

"Basement" is like a Year-9 project carried out by a group of kids messing about with some recording equipment. Except worse.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Another Year

Mike Leigh's run of form continues.

Review by Claude Carpentieri

If there ever was an imaginary Award for Best Social Observation and another for Best Depiction of the Ordinary, Mike Leigh would probably make a clean sweep each time.

His new release Another Year follows in the footsteps of some of his best work - 2002's All or Nothing and 1995's Secrets And Lies to mention but two.

This, however, is probably the first time Leigh casts his lens solely on the middle classes.

Past criticism that most of his work is allegedly a patronising take on the working classes as downtrodden salt-of-the-earth types was always ingenerous. And, like in every other of his films, Another Year goes to show that dysfunctional interaction and social ineptitude, contentment and loneliness, delusion and caring alike have all little to do with class as they're just integral to humanity.

At the core of Another Year, a couple approaching retirement; husband Tom (Jim Broadbent - Slater from Only Fools and Horses), a geologist and wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a psychologist. Their house, a large and cosy one in a leafy London suburb. Their son, Joe (possibly separated at birth from Keane's lead singer), an affectionate, sensible young lawyer. Their relationship, an island of warmth, affection and security amidst a social cluster where all of their friends and extended family seem to struggle with solitude and assorted demons.

The film unravels over a year. Each season, a friend or family visits Tom and Gerri, initially proudly claiming that "all is fine" and that "they're happier than ever", only to gradually let on - generally courtesy of a few drinks - that the picture is a totally different one and that, actually, loneliness and ageing are corroding them from within.

Another Year works because of its contemplative, gentle pace and its minimalistic touches. It wouldn't be a Mike Leigh film if the camera work wasn't so subtly masterful and the depiction of the most precious details so intense.

But Another Year also works because it never wishes to lecture anybody on anything. It's just a take on the fact that sometimes companionship can serve as the best refuge against ageing, insecurity and depression.

An absolute masterpiece.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Mechanic

Two reviews for the price of one.

The mere sight of big/fast cars makes you wet your bed. Films where burly geezers square each other up without flinching one bit give you a feeling of excitement which is only comparable to when you squash bugs or when you watch Jeremy Clarkson testing a new motor.

You probably think that smiling at someone in public makes you a wuss because you're a true man and any deeper than The Fast and the Furious makes it too hard to deal with emotionally.

If you ticked all of the above (and also if your parents used to lock you in the garage when you were a naughty child), then you'll probably find that The Mechanic is genius and you should watch it and spunk in your pants.

You just know from the start that the main bloke in the film (Jason Statham) will survive with barely a scratch. He takes no shit and he's built like a brick shithouse. The words predictable and boring start flashing in neon lights as the first five minutes unravel.

This is a geezer's equivalent of Sex & The City, the type of stuff that girlfriends only watch at the movies just to keep their manly boyfriend happy and to make up for when they forced him to watch Valentine's Day and, of course, Love Actually.

Oh...and Donald Sutherland has gone downhill and you just don't think that lots of guns, car chases, broken limbs and gravity defying jumps make for good entertainment, light or otherwise.

The retro-looking poster is great though. The gun even matches the colour of this blog.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The King's Speech

Will the story of King George VI make a clean sweep at the Oscars?

Today's headlines report that the forthcoming 2011 Academy Awards will mainly consist of a battle between The Social Network and The King's Speech.

Our money is on the latter.

And that's because, while most other films centred on royal families and nobility tend to be drowned in tweeness, romance and people prancing about while talking in riddles, The King's Speech covers totally different territory.

No doubt the film is also an interesting take on the historical events surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII and the dramatic run-up to World War II. But it is first and foremost a human drama about the scars brought about by the pressure and expectations of a repressive upbringing.

The story is centred around Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second son of King George V, a man whose severe stammer affected his public engagements and social interaction at various levels.

Spurred by his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he decides to see Mr Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist and teacher of elocution. Not without hurdles, an unlikely friendship starts developing between them, as Mr Logue graduates slowly from inferior subject and subordinate to trusted confidant.

And so it emerges that Albert's speech problems stems from the typically dysfunctional and repressed childhood that generation after generation of royals have endured, a state of affairs brilliantly depicted by Johann Hari in his 2002 book God Save The Queen.

Bullied by his brother, repressed by his father and painfully corrected for his left-handedness and knock-knees, Albert grows up to believe that far from ever being good enough to lead, he will always be a source of embarrassment and scorn. Until, that is, Lionel Logue's intervention and a series of unprecedented historical events will help Albert (soon to become King George VI) overcome his stammer and deliver one of the most dramatic speeches in world history.

Ultimately, it is both David Seidler's powerful script (himself a stammer sufferer as a child) and Colin Firth's moving interpretation of Albert that make The King's Speech stand out. And yes, also hopefully mop the floor (twice over) with The Social Network.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Daily Mail typo of the year

Look at the caption above. It was visible until earlier this morning on the Mail online (alas it was later amended).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Little Fockers

The successor to Meet the Parents.

Six years after Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro emerged as one of Hollywood's most unlikely comedy duos, the Meet the Parents franchise returns with male nurse Greg Focker and his wife Pam the proud parents of twins Henry and Samantha.

Greg's hard-earned family approval is destined to plunge to new lows as ever-suspicious control freak Jack Byrnes (De Niro) develops a new obsession: he is now on a mission to appoint his successor in charge of the whole family.

This will only mean more pressure on Greg, as his father-in-law can't help but stick his nose into his business - queue the familiar succession of misunderstandings and cringeworthy moments leading up to Jack trying to get his daughter back with her ex Kevin (Owen Wilson).

And while Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand's contributions are purely nominal, Wilson and new addition Jessica Alba are pivotal in adding extra spice to the whole story.

Yet it's not quite clear why the follow-up to the mega successful Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers was slated by critics. Perhaps the default cynicism that tends to surround sequels may have something to do with it.

No doubt none of Little Fockers is groundbreaking comedy and, yes, a lot of it relies on poop scenes and all-too-familiar slapstick, but so what?

Exactly like its predecessors, Little Fockers does what it says on the tin without any high-brow ambition or post-ironic pretension.

The film contains a selection of laugh-out-loud and crude moments: from the "Sustengo" bits (which carry tons of cringe factor -especially the scene of Ben Stiller administering De Niro an injection in his private bits) and the two protagonists' trip to the kids' new school, to the random references to Andy Garcia or the final youtube video complete with remix.

Little Fockers may not mark a watershed moment in the history of comedy but it'll make for ninety minutes of good entertainment.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Jamie's 30-Minute Meals

Far from lecturing and patronising, Jamie Oliver is actually suggesting that good and healthy food should be accessible to everybody.

I like Jamie Oliver.

Britain's most recognised chef has taken so much stick over the last few years amidst accusations that he is "lecturing people" (quote: Health Minister Andrew Lansley over Jamie's School Dinners) and meddling with their eating habits.

And yet, in a media world where celebrities, chefs included, seem to be earning fame and plaudits by virtue of shouting the F-word (literally) or the C-word louder than the next person, Jamie Oliver deserves praise for keeping away from cheap shots and loud-mouthed gimmicks.

More than anything, however, Oliver deserves credit for dishing out tons of advice on how to make your own food without ever coming across as inaccessible or over-complicated. Which is no easy feat.

At first glance, some of the dishes included in his latest series Jamie's 30-Minute Meals may look extremely elaborate and offputting. And yet they're not. It's amazing how much you can do in less than thirty minutes and with the simplest of ingredients.

More, Oliver's programme is based on extreme realism.

Pre-packed artificial microwaveable ready meals have become such a tempting option for most (this blog included) because, after a long day at work, the last thing most people fancy is a gruelling cooking session or a supermarket quest for exotic ingredients.

Which is why, far from lecturing and patronising, Jamie Oliver is actually on a mission to make simple yet good and healthy food accessible to everybody and not just the wealthy.

Most importantly, he doesn't think -shock horror- that everything has to be made from scratch. What matters, like Oliver himself writes: "this kind of cooking is all about using every minute wisely, having fun and reclaiming your kitchen for the job it was meant for".

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Tourist

Winning hands down the Oscar for undeserved nominations.

Too many genres applied to a film can be a clue to its muddled nature.

For evidence, look no further than star-studded mega-budget movie The Tourist.

Described as, in succession, action, thriller, comedy, drama and romantic, The Tourist was designed to cash in on the pre-Christmas season and capitalise on big names like Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp as well as on tons of glamour and beautiful scenery. It's not for nothing that it was described as "two of the world’s most beautiful people in one of the world’s most beautiful cities".

Nothing, however, can save a flimsy story and a weak plot, and The Tourist is no exception.

The initial intrigue withers within fifteen minutes when the story sags and it becomes apparently that this is a thriller with no thrills and nowhere to go but opulence, chocolate boxes and Angelina Jolie's lips.

Incidentally, her preening persona grates after a while and Johnny Depp looks like he hasn't really grasped what the directors have asked him to do. That is, of course, supposing that they knew themselves which, judging by the whole thing, is quite unlikely.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Cliches of 2011 #4

"Use the off switch or change channel".

The recent controversy triggered by the TopGear trio of Disco Vicars (Clarkson, Hammond, May) and their round of offensive comments dressed up as just-a-bit-of-fun prompted the usual charge of lame justifications.

From "no-one cares" (read "I don't, meeeeee, therefore it follows that the whole world doesn't either") and "haven't the Mexicans more important things to think about", to "this country is losing its sense of humour", the defenders of casual bullying and casual racism have been out in force to stick up for the three white upper class broadcasters.

The lamest defence, however, comes in the guise of the trite "You don't need to watch TopGear. Use the off switch or change channel".

Which really says a lot about some people's sapped power of observation. Because:

a) TopGear is paid for by the taxpayer - that is you and me and the bloke over there. You may change channel (and rest assured Clarkson's is the last TV programme this blog would want to watch), but still you won't be able do jack to stop your own money from being used to fund Clarkson and his side-splitting remarks about the disabled, the blind and various vulnerable people.

b) This is no page-32 article written in dubious taste and published by some local paper we're talking about. Alas, TopGear is the most popular BBC programme worldwide. Me and you may switch off the telly, but in the meantime tens of millions of people abroad will have found more reasons to believe the Brits' growing reputation as a nation of small-minded xenophobic little islanders.

c) Like Steve Coogan wrote in his Observer piece this morning, "tolerance of casual racism [is] arguably the most sinister kind [as] [i]t's easy to spot the ones with the burning crosses".

So here's a question for the "I'm-Not-Racist" Brigade: what's more dangerous and more hateful, a twat dressed up in ku klux klan robes that everyone can see, or a (not so) subtle and growing set of xenophobic remarks thrown left right and centre and dressed up as "just-a-bit-of-fun"?

If no-one ever stood up to bullies and racists in the name of "getting-a-sense-of-humour" and "relaxing", telly would still be packed with stuff like The Black and White Minstrel Show and Curry and Chips.

You may be content enough to switch channels, but I don't want to be forced to spend £145.50 a year to reinforce the notion that the British constantly look down on everything foreign, thank you very much.

Jeremy Clarkson and his sidekicks can play the bully if they want, but not with the taxpayer's money.

PS: Incidentally- Three Brits pouring scorn on Mexican food saying that it's like "sick with cheese on top"? Brits laughing at other people's food???? Now what did you say about sense of humour?

Click here to access the full list of cliches (2010-11):
"Young female TV presenters are a response to market demand".
"You've GOT to own your own home";
Society benefits from extreme wealth at the top";
"There are jobs out there if you really want one";
"The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue".

Steve Coogan 5 Jeremy Clarkstwit 0

Britain's top comedian slams Top Gear bullies.

You may have heard about the recent (minor) stir caused by Jeremy Clarkson the school bully and his two sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May with their latest round of embarrassingly lazy, xenophobic and unfunny comments.

After preying on the disabled and the blind (ha ha bet your sides are splitting), homosexuals and prostitutes, sweatshop workers and various nationalities that aren't the B-R-I-T-I-S-H (to be uttered in a proud, low-pitched tone), this time the three idiots decided to pick on the Mexicans.

However, the best answer to the current wave of testosterone-fuelled Clarksonite brand of bullying dressed up as "the-right-to-a-bit-of-fun" came from legendary comedian and Alan Partridge-creator Steve Coogan.

His article for today's Observer is just spot-on. Especially when he refers to "the regular defence you tend to hear – the tired line that it's 'just a laugh', a bit of 'harmless fun'" and to "the current "'postmodern' reaction to overzealous political correctness, [...] a licence for any halfwit to vent the prejudices they'd been keeping in the closet since Love Thy Neighbour was taken off the air".

Friday, February 04, 2011

Un buen dia lo tiene cualquiera

A series on contemporary European cinema.

3) Un buen dia lo tiene cualquiera
(Spain, 2007)

The Noughties went down in history as the golden age of Spanish cinema.

From internationally acclaimed horrors like REC and The Orphanage to amazing dramas like Volver or Julia's Eyes, Spain spawned one gem after the other.

Outside Spanish-speaking countries, however, most releases remain best-kept secrets and the excellent black comedy Un buen dia lo tiene cualquiera (rough equivalent "Everyone's gotta have a good day") is a case in point.

Based on genius social observation, Santiago Lorenzo's satire is a take on the plight of today's thirtysomethings and the extent people may go to escape incertitude and general skintness.

With his dot-com company gone bust, Arturo has lost literally everything. His only hope lays in a local-authority project that offers young people and students a place as live-in carers for frail and ill OAPs. And while Arturo may be a bit long in the tooth to qualify, with the help of a couple of kickbacks and dodgy documents, he manages to land a room at Onofre's, a pensioner known to social workers and nurses as charming, quiet and docile.

No doubt things seem to be looking up. In order to keep his rent-free status, all Arturo has to do is administer the old man his medication and keep him some company.

Little does he know, however, that behind the poor OAP there's a rabid Mr Hyde setting out to make Arturo's life a mysery.

Manipulative and vindictive, Onofre is a true force to be reckoned with. The result is an escalating war between the two featuring a series of comical moments that will both baffle and entertain the viewer until the end.

Thursday, February 03, 2011


A series on contemporary European cinema.

2) Welcome (France, 2009)

Bilal has an impossible plan.

Having reached Calais after a 3-month journey from war-torn Northern Iraq, the Man Utd-obessed refugee is desperate to cross the Channel and make it to London where his beloved girlfriend Mina has recently emigrated with her family.

After an aborted early attempt that was thwarted by the police, Bilal conjures up a strategy to defy the freezing waters and swim all the way to England.

Not being a fine swimmer, however, he realises that he's in need of some intensive training.

This is how he meets local swimming instructor Simon, (Vincent Lindon) a surly, middle-aged French geezer who's in the throes of divorce papers and major changes in his life.

As the training sessions continue and the two develop an unlikely bond, the story meets a major turning point when Bilal finds out that Mina is suddenly being forced to marry one of her cousins in London.

With the boy getting increasingly impatient and unsettled, Simon learns first-hand the intense prejudices and restrictions that illegal immigrants and asylum seekers endure, cue his hostile neighbour (whose doormat sports the word WELCOME in capital letters - oh the irony) grassing him up to he police for "aiding and abetting" illegal immigrants.

Directed and written by Philip Lioret, Welcome's intensity is not always easy to digest and the drama and anguish of its final moments may prove too much for some people to take.

Yet, the film's gentle and minimalistic script and its touching tale of determination and humanity will make you feel grateful for allowing you into its world - a world that too many people refuse to acknowledge, blinded as they are by xenophobia and the convenient refusal to accept that some people are desperate and will do anything to escape war, poverty and devastation.

An extraordinary story that will stay with you for days.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Das Leben der Anderen

A series on contemporary European cinema.

1) The Lives of Others
(Germany, 2006)

More often than not the most effective or tensest moments in a film are delivered through subtle details. A single nod, a close-up, or even silence can prove more crucial in building-up a story than a million gimmicks.

The Lives of Others (original title: Das Leben der Anderen) is possibly the best film I've ever watched in terms of how subtlety is at the core of a powerful story.

Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a drama set at the peak of East German communism. It's 1984 and no-one suspects that one of the most stifling and controlling political regimes of the twentieth century is actually a few years away from dissolving.

East Germany was home to one of the most powerful secret police forces known to man. Making sure that nothing could ever change, loyal and devoted Stasi informers were there to obediently enforce submission. Threats, arrests, carrots and sticks were dished out with varying degrees of brutality by an army of zealots competing for who could gain the prize for the most righteous servant of "the state" and make a career out of it.

Except that, when your entire concept of power is based on grassing people up, it's only a matter of time before the entire edifice crumbles.

A state like the former DDR was bound to be consumed from within. Everyone was a potential suspect. You were monitored if you dissented and you were monitored if you didn't - the idea being that you've got to have something to hide if you're toeing the party line so religiously.

These are the premises behind The Lives of Others.

Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is one of the few artists the regime hasn't managed to alienate or force into exile.

His loyal and inoffensive work, with the added bonus of being one of the very few DDR writers still read in the West, grants him a fairly privileged life and access to powerful friends.

His life, however, is about to be turned upside down as powerful Stasi officers start suspecting that not even he is above suspicion.

Determined to dig up dirt, they decide to put him under strict surveillance, bugging his flat and monitoring everything 24/7. The task is assigned to officer Wiesler, ruthless, dedicated and robotic as well as a firm believer in the East German state and therefore a rising star within the secret police.

Trouble is, Wiesler will soon realise that behind Dreyman's surveillance there is a gruesome abuse of power. A mighty Minister has cast his eyes on the playwright's actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria - blackmailing her into an affair.

What makes the story particularly fascinating is the way it unravels. Each of the characters maintains an aura of mystery about them until the end, almost in line with the general state of mistrust that reigned supreme in the former DDR.

And so the viewer is not quite sure whether Dreyman has indeed something to hide, nor is it obviously clear that Christa-Maria is not involved in something shady. Wiesler himself - is he truly warming up to the people he is monitoring or will he put his loyalty to "the state" before basic issues of humanity?

Also masterful is the meticulous reconstruction and depiction of East German landscapes. Minimalistic designs, modernist offices and barren interiors add up to perma-grey skies and a rarefied atmosphere to portray a sense of general sallowness and fear.

Intense, claustrophobic and suspenseful, The Lives of Others is a gripping tale of humanity before it's a drama or a thriller.

Awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, it is definitely one of the best productions to have hailed from continental Europe over the last few decades.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


What a waste of a film.

In 1983, Kenny Waters was convicted of the brutal murder of a woman in a town in Massachusetts. Little was known at the time that the case was going to become one of America's biggest miscarriages of justice, with Kenny ending up locked away for eighteen years over something he never did.

Tony Goldwyn's Conviction is the true story of how Kenny Waters' sister Betty Anne embarked upon a two-decade long mission to have her brother freed.

At any rate, the story is obviously compelling and even moving at times. The intention is obviously good and it certainly helps that both main actors, Hilary Swank (interpreting Betty Ann) and Sam Rockwell (Kenny Waters) pull off a fine performance.

The problem, however, is that the film fails completely to convey any sense of drama and involvement as the whole thing unravels in a totally mono-dimensional manner. For almost two hours it bangs on about one thing and one thing alone without any subplot, twist or character development or anything that encourages the viewer to give a particular damn.

Compare it with other films based on judicial cock-ups and assorted legal wranglings (In the Name of the Father or North Country to name but two) and the result is a lot of squandered potential and a story that comes across as both drawn out and uninspiring.

In other words, more of a Sunday afternoon TV film than a Hollywood release. Avoid if you can.

Friday, January 28, 2011

127 Hours

One of the contenders for this year's Academy Awards.

Danny Boyle is one of those film directors I have never been able to decide whether I'm a fan of or not.

Some of his films I watched a dozen times each. There was Shallow Grave, one of the best thriller noirs of the 1990s. Or, The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, a gripping depiction of human nature and the way communities implode under the weight of envy and factionalism.

Then there's Slumdog Millionaire, showered with praise and awards, a touching tale of exploitation and expectations set in modern India. And, of course, Boyle was also the man behind one of best the horror films of the last ten years, the disturbing 28 Days Later.

However, what's annoying about the most famous living British director is what seems to be the 'ultra-cool' and 'in-with-the-kids' factor. Some of his stuff is reminiscent of those 'cool students' circa-1998 who would look at you in amazement at the news that, no, you don't actually like Moby or Fatboy Slim. "What? Really, man? But Moby is sooooo cool!".

Cue the irritating camera work. The fast forwarded bits. The industrial amounts of clipped images. The super trendy soundtracks, and god forbid if the film tallies two consecutive seconds without music in the foreground. And so on.

Trainspotting springs to mind, one of the films I've never been able to actually grasp - which is my own fault no doubt.

Still, you can't fault the man. Radcliffe's biggest export seems to have struck gold again, as his latest release is one of the hottest contenders for this year's Academy Awards.

100% based on true events, 127 Hours is an engrossing tale of survival and endurance. It's the story of Aron Rolston, an adventure sports fanatic who became trapped by a boulder in the Utah canyons in 2003.

Played by the excellent James Franco, Aron inadvertently falls into a crevice with the added bad luck of a massive boulder tumbling til the point it's encased against his arm.

As the place is literally in the middle of nowhere, the protagonist embarks upon a race against time, loneliness, climate and physical pain in an increasingly desperate quest to get out alive.

And what a desperate quest it is. Most viewers would probably wonder what they would have done had they been in his shoes. Not a lot, probably, if you consider that Aron was fighting alone while standing up for five days with all but a trapped arm, a cheap swissknife and a water flask.

Which is what makes this film particularly special. Aron's emotions are portrayed masterfully, with his sense of panic and despair gradually spiralling out of control as his life begins to flash, literally, before his eyes. Bravely, however, the man manages to keep his nerves under control, which is ultimately what will allow him to survive to tell his story.

A must-see.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2

The prequel to one of the scariest horrors of the Noughties.

When the first Paranormal Activty came out in 2009, this blog professed its outmost admiration.

There was a horror film that did what it said on the tin. A slow and relentless build-up which resulted in tons of suspense without relying on monsters, zombies or any sort of camera trick. I obviously speak for myself, but when I watched it, it really freaked me out, which I guess is what a film called Paranormal Activity should be doing in the first place.

One year down the line, and its follow-up came out in the guise of a prequel.

The formula is still the same, except that the story is now centred around Kate's sister's family and a series of spooky events in the weeks prior to what happened in the first film.

There are both a different director (Tod Williams) and writer (Michael R. Perry), but you wouldn't have noticed, given that the same minimalistic touches and meticulous attention to the build-up are applied this time as well.

In short, still very scary, except that this time you more or less already know what to expect, which detracts a little from the tension and the anticipation.

However, if you did miss the first one, this is likely to make you jump big time nonetheless.

The bad news is that a third instalment has already been commissioned for October 2011. As it's very difficult to see where the story can go any further without trivialising it in the style of Saw (now likely to be in its 22nd incarnation) or Final Destination (except that it's never final), one could be forgiven for their scepticism.

Paranormal Activity 2 is released on DVD on Feb 8, 2011.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Blame the weather

Why Osborne's excuse that snow is to blame for the collapse in economic growth is comedy material.

Britain's economy contracted 0.5% in the last quarter, the most in a year, according to the latest from the Office for National Statistics.

While everybody agrees the figures are evidence of a double-dip recession on its way and even the CBI boss accuses the government of "lacking vision" ("Measures that cut spending but killed demand would actually make matters worse", in the words of Sir Richard Lambert), Chancellor George "Trustfund" Osborne had the cheek to seriously blame last month's snowfall and cold temperatures.

No doubt because he had first-hand experience of both.

But let's just suppose Osborne was right. At the end of the day, it is true that last December was the coldest on record.

It still isn't enough to explain entirely such a massive slump to the point of also cancelling out completely October and November.

The truth is that no amount of comical excuses from Britain's Chancellor will cover up for the devastating decisions they've inflicted on the country.

And a simple comparison will be enough to expose his bullshit for what it is.

December 2009 was also an extremely cold month. Granted, not as extreme as December 2010, but still the Met Office described it as the coldest on record since 1995, with heavy snowfalls and widespread disruption to the economy.

Yet that didn't prevent the economy from growing last year for the first time in six quarters (see this).

More. Look at January, February and March 2010. The three combined were all much colder than usual (January in particular was "the coldest over the UK since 1987 and equal eighth-coldest in a series from 1910") and each of them was officially listed as "anomalies" in terms of mean temperatures.

Guess what? The economy grew over that quarter too. No mention of bad weather there, eh?

The truth is, Osborne is useless and this government is so inept that they would still deny a piece of evidence if it stared at them in the face with a sign that said "evidence".


...More likely she wouldn't with someone like you, Mr Gray. Bargepole and all...

And guess who, dear Reader, is sticking by the two Neanderthals? The Daily Mail, of course, with a supremely condescending and patronising piece by Julie Welch.

Look at this dribble of goo in the guise of print:

"Right or wrong, most men – not arty leftie metrosexuals, but the vast majority of blokes – appreciate the game because it offers male-only companionship. Somewhere that isn’t complicated by the presence of women. They want a place where they can be neanderthal and boring, where they can swear, behave badly, let off steam and, yes, be sexist. There aren’t many places left for these emasculated men to simply behave like blokes. Football is one of the few areas of life left that allows them to".

So, according to Ms Condescending, if you don't form a pack with other men, hang around in caves, smash the place up and make monkey noises, you're an "arty leftie metrosexual". Like, if "the vast majority of women" don't just giggle and slog away in the kitchen and talk about make-up and gossip about the latest on Heat magazine they're all bitter lesbofeminists, right?

And since you're at it, Welch. Would you also include racist and homophobic slander as part of the legitimate right "to simply behave like a bloke", or is that too "censorship and criticism"?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The abolition of election campaigning

Why the government's NHS proposals have pushed bullshit politics to untenable levels.

The run-up to the general election. Those dreaded weeks when the country is bombarded with oily messages, grinning politicians hugging babies, kids, huskies, or anything immediately at hand.

Those useless televisual feasts where leaders nod to borderline-whiplash levels, the smarmy "I know what you mean" can be heard over and over, and Nick Clegg calls everyone by name without the slightest grasp that he may be 'overdoing it' a bit.

The quazillions spent on multicoloured placards, posters and assorted ads. The junk flowing through the letterbox, the tedious door-knocking, the bingeing on promises and proclaims.

Wouldn't it be a wonderful idea if all of the above was done away with?

There is now irrefutable evidence that election campaigns are not only useless and a waste of money, but also outright deceitful.

We had plenty of that when Labour was in power and we're having more of the same (except at a faster rate and even more barefaced) now.

For all the industrial amounts of political gobbing off we heard last year, there was no mention from either the Tories of the Liberal Democrats that tuition fees were going to be hiked up; that VAT was going to be increased; that the NHS was going to end up mangled and "reorganised" from the top down; that sick and disabled people were going to suffer cuts of up to a third in their incomes; that child benefits would be touched; that the Education Maintenance Allowance for disadvantaged students was going to be scrapped at a stroke; that more measures were going to come in to make it easier to sack workers...and the list could go on for hours.

And make no mistake. For all the bullshit they will try to feed you, this has nothing to do with "compromise". It is crucial we understand that neither of the Coalition partners promised or even suggested any of the above. It is not as if the Tories or the LibDems are reluctantly taking on board what the other partner had advocated all along.

Far from it. Both Tories and Lib-Dems fervently denied they would have anything to do with each and every one of those policies and, in some of those cases, they actually campaigned against (i.e. VAT rise, tuition fees, etc).

The recent bill on the NHS is just taking the piss.

So here's the proposal.

Do away with election campaigning. Scrap it, ditch it, just knock it on the head. Give all that money to charity. On polling day people will cast their vote on the basis of what they've seen in practice over the lifetime of that parliament and after plenty of evidence of how MPs' decisions actually affected their lives.

That should be more then enough to make up their mind. Bullshit politics has now reached tipping point.

About bleedin time

"Andy Coulson quits as David Cameron spin doctor".

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shameless David Laws

Where the word "hypocrisy" pokes its ugly rear.

Today's Guardian treats its readers with the squalid spectacle of a Coalition supporter, David Laws, championing the mass cuts that have just been unleashed on the country.

And while there's nothing new in hearing a government cheerleader reciting the usual script, what makes it particularly grating is the fact only last May millionaire David Laws was caught red-handed claiming £40,000 to pay rent to his boyfriend.

Sure, Mr Laws was not the first MP who fiddled the system and defrauded the taxpayer. But he was certainly one of the most outspoken "hard-liners" when it came to pontificating on "the pay and perks of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers", which is where the word "hypocrisy" pokes its ugly rear into the equation.

So for him to smugly lecture ordinary people on why their nosediving standards of living (squeezed incomes, higher bills, higher VAT, mass redundancies and huge cuts to public services - from care workers to the police and from the NHS to food inspectors) are actually a good thing, that's just taking the piss.

This ruthless (as well as electorally suicidal) lack of empathy highlights the importance of not having a political elite stuffed, literally, with millionaires who are clueless when it comes to the price of bus fares or gas bills and the way they impact on ordinary people.

PS. Since we're at it. Laws writes that:

"in April the first Lib Dem-inspired increase in the personal income tax allowance will boost the incomes of basic rate taxpayers, and take hundreds of thousands of low earners out of income tax altogether".

This is a piece of LibFibbery that we're hearing time and again. What they rarely tell you however is that:

a) It won't be until 2015 that the increase will actually begin to cover the full £10K threshold. That's if it goes ahead (there are already reports of grumbles amongst Tory ranks);

b) The forthcoming £1K increase will be cancelled out by the VAT hike and galloping prices.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cliches of 2011 #3

"Young female TV presenters are a response to market demand".

Last week former Countryfile host Miriam O'Reilly won a case against the BBC on the grounds of ageism, after losing her job the moment she turned 50.

It was reported that O'Reilly "had been asked if it was 'time for Botox' and was warned to be 'careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in'". The case ended with the BBC issuing an apology and Director General Mark Thompson phoning Miriam saying: "Sorry, we got things wrong in the way older women are treated".

One category of people, however, reacted to the news with little sympathy, their views typified by entrepreneur James Caan. On last Thursday's BBC Question Time, he said: "TV channels respond to market demand", adding that "if we're really honest, as a consumer society [we want to see] young, pretty, dolly-looking people" on TV.

And so here we are again. The mythical notion of "the consumer society" evoked to justify anything that suits whichever ruthless practice of the day - nevermind questions of humanity, taste or simple pig-headedness.

It's the 21st-century version of the Ancient Spartans' custom of chucking people off a cliff as a means of 'purging' their population of weakness. "Sorry very much, it's what the market demands", become the default smokescreen for anything, crass varieties of geezerist ageism included.

Shame these people never specify which "market demand" or "demographics" they're referring to.

No doubt there are copious amounts of randy people who genuinely look forward to seeing "young, pretty, dolly-looking people" on the telly, the same way there will always be a constituency for the Sun and various rags of an onanistic inclination.

But what about the equally vast amounts of viewers who are unfazed by all of the above? Haven't they got a right to have their "market demand" heard too?

There are millions out there who don't judge the quality of a programme on the basis of whether the presenter was born in 1940, 1960 or 1991.

Those who would rather television reflected real life (ie not everybody looking like a fembot); those who find this obsessive quest for everything "young" and "fast" and "trendy" and "wicked" both pathetic and patronising.

Or those who think that we've already fulfilled our fix of giddiness or trollop-ness on both the TV screens and the newsagents' shelves.

Ignore all of the above and the market demand becomes a severely crook-eyed one.

Click here to access the full list of cliches (2010-11):
"You've GOT to own your own home";
Society benefits from extreme wealth at the top";
"There are jobs out there if you really want one";
"The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue";
"Iain Duncan Smith is a kind and honourable man".

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The toxic effects of job insecurity

From lower productivity rates to family dysfunction and from poor customer service to depression and lack of motivation. What lies behind David Cameron's calls for "less red tape".

David Cameron's recent plans to make it easier to sack staff in the first two years of their employment have sparked an intense debate over the nature of Britain's labour market.

After the "fluffy years", it was only a matter of time before the crook-eyed default Tory approach to the world of paid employment would resurface.

The problem for Cameron and the bosses' organisations, however, is that - unlike the Thatcher years - there's very little left in terms of workers' protection for the government to wade in with the axe.

Extreme job insecurity in the UK is already a growing reality.

According to the OECD, Britain is in the top three along with the US and Canada (and well under the OECD average) in the strictness of employment protection index (1985-2008), which measures "the procedures and costs involved in dismissing individuals or groups of workers and the procedures involved in hiring workers on fixed-term or temporary work agency contracts".

Given the companies' free access to casual staff on "zero hours contract", or the free use of "temps" (which, by law, can be hired repeatedly on fixed-term contracts for up to four years before any tie comes into place), the lax regulation on probationary period for regular staff, as well as some of the lowest levels of statutory redundancy pay in the Western world, the notion that Britain's employment regulations may be at the core of the current dole rates is simply comedy material.

If we carry on this way, soon the only crusade left for the British Chamber of Commerce and the Tories to embark upon under the guise of "cutting red tape" will be against the right for workers to empty their bladder or take a crap at work.

However, what the last few days also highlighted is the almost total abdication on the part of the left and Labour in the fight against the galloping job insecurity and its noxious effects.

This line from the normally commendable Stumbling and Mumbling blog bothered me to the extreme. While sceptical of David Cameron's proposals, author Chris Dillow also wrote:

"There’s good evidence that [employment protection] reduces workers’ effort and increases absenteeism. This suggests that - at the margin - Cameron’s proposals might increase labour productivity".

Now, the reason why the above quote bothered me so much is that it shows how toxic and widespread certain myths are that even well-informed and well-read people can buy into them without questioning.

In brief, the Daily Mailesque-fable that a permanent job or certain guarantees at work will automatically turn you into a slacker. They ain't gonna sack me, so why bother, basically.

And how can you dispute that if even the usually meticulous and pro-left Chris Dillow can cite "good evidence" on the matter?

Except that said "good evidence" points to three pieces of research from Portugal and Italy which are solely and exclusively focused on specific (and already obsolete) legislation passed in those two countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Those laws were extremely protective - overly protective in fact - in a way not remotely comparable to anything Britain ever experienced, not even at its unionised peak.

It's like saying "there's good evidence that January is not a cold month and in fact look at this link to prove it". Except that it points to average January temperatures from the Canary Islands and Dubai.

The fact is, instead, that there's literally a mammoth body of research out there warning of the toxic long-term effects of job insecurity (click here for a summary).

Over the years detailed studies took place around the world, from the US and Canada to Australia, Sweden, Korea, Germany and more. The findings leave room to no doubt: there is a clear correlation between excessive levels of job insecurity and a variety of negative outcomes.

The initial advantages of "increased flexibility and lower costs" for the employers are undisputed. But little is ever said about the long-term effects that "casualisation may have on important aspects of national economic performance such as skill formation" and, most importantly, the ticking time-bomb that is widespread casualisation as weighed against "long-term financial planning".

But the strongest and most consistent evidence is the one seen across firms, industries, and countries linking job insecurity with "negative employee attitudes, behavio[u]rs, and health" and with the fact - as noted by several researchers - that "job insecurity is more stressful than job loss itself".

Amongst the negative effects, a "powerful negative influence on motivation", "reduced effort" and "poor safety compliance by employees". Low levels of job satisfaction are also associated with negative employee attitudes, lower customer performance and effectiveness with customers as well as with -in turn- a detrimental effect on group morale.

And that's without taking into account what "the longer term negative effects on workers' depression levels", or "the systemic [relation] between job insecurity and marital and family dysfunction" or, even, the proven effects that "parents' job insecurity has on children's school performance as measured by grades" .

The fact that "job insecurity reduces job satisfaction is attributable to the uncertainty of not knowing how to predict or control job threats".

And that's because, while insecurity in the short-term may spur a worker to perform better if the goal is a latter stage of more protection and various perks, an ongoing perception of "precariousness" will start having an adverse effect, as the worker will feel increasingly uncertain that their persistence can be sufficient enough for them to retain their job.

For a worker with little to lose, the lack of ties will offer no incentives to stop them from slacking off or "looking elsewhere" altogether.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tory proposals on sacking people are both useless and criminal

Mass sackings: welcome to The Great Conservative Economic Strategy.

Another fine display of 21st century British politics took place yesterday when David Cameron dropped the bombshell on the millions of unwitting voters that it should be made much easier to sack workers in this country ("Firms get power to sack the slackers", Telegraph).

Now, of course, the Tories don't have a mandate for that. They never mentioned any of their "employment reforms" at any stage of the election campaign. They didn't because they knew that voters would punish them for that. And in fact, at this point, if you're an ordinary worker and you still think voting Tories will do you or the country any good, then you may as well chop your own bollocks off. The outcome will not be dissimilar.

It's astonishing that, in the face of the biggest crisis in sixty years, The Great Conservative Economic Strategy amounts to the sacking of half a million public workers, even easier sacking procedures for everybody else and -of course- higher costs of living.

The Tories' proposal is based on the contempt they have for ordinary workers. If you are an employee, you are - by default - a burden, an irritant, a disposable pain in the arse. Whatever the issue, financial or otherwise, you're the first one who should bear the brunt. No matter how much this may undermine morale or loyalty to the company. No matter how insecure it makes you feel. You're not a person. You're just a cheap pawn.

David Cameron's proposed new "Employment Charter" starts from a fallacy the size of the Millennium Dome: the ridiculously simplistic illusion that if you decrease protection at work, employment levels will rise automatically.

This is so all over the place that it's difficult to know where to start. But let's just say that the post-1997 implementation of the minimum wage and new maternity rules in Britain were followed by the lowest dole rates in thirty years. Look, instead, at the swirl of anti-Union laws and other measures brought in by Thatcher. It did nothing to even slow down the sustained high unemployment rates that kept looming large over the 1980s and 1990s.

Or consider Italy and Spain, where the last ten years saw most extreme forms of casualisation and disposable employment steamrolled in. Their unemployment levels are still looking extremely sorry, in fact worse even than before.

The second fallacy is that the Conservatives are making it sound as if the current British labour market was stifling and inflexible, while it is already one of the most boss-friendly in the EU as it's cheaper and easier to get rid of staff in Britain than it is in most of its counterparts.

Currently, bosses already enjoy the possibility of hiring as many agency or casual workers as they please. These come with no tie whatsoever. They are literally disposable.

If, however, the same boss saw fit to recruit "properly", there is a probationary period of up to 6 months in which he/she can sack said employee on a whim - literally - no notice, no motive, no compensation. Nowt.

After that, the boss will still have up to 12 months in which he/she can still fire him without any possible fear of being done for unfair dismissal or forking out a penny in statutory redundancy pay.

At this point, you will already concede that if a manager hasn't clocked who the slacker is without successfully rectifying the situation, it is he or she who should be sacked and not the worker.

And it's not over yet. While unfair dismissal claims can be brought after a year, you have to work a total of 24 months in order to be entitled to the lowest possible allowance of statutory redundancy, which - please note - is by far the cheapest in Western Europe.

However, egged on by the British Chamber of Commerce, David Cameron thinks that all of the above amounts to "too much red tape" and that the period that allows staff to submit unfair dismissal claims should be increased from one to two years.

But the icing on the cake is the Coalition's proposal to levy a charge on workers who decide to still fight their corner. This may be vintage Tory philosophy, but in this case it just borders on the criminal - as it crucially links access to justice not to whether you're in the right or not, but to whether you can afford it.

And, needless to say, it also ignores the fee that plaintiffs already pay their lawyer, or their union in the form of fees, if it is they who provide legal counsel.

Incidentally, unions rarely decide to pursue claims that they themselves think will lack weight. The amount of pre-screening that is done prior to deciding whether to gamble on a worker's claim is immense. And that's without even including the conciliation and arbitration stage.

And even so, official figures say that, in the first quarter of last year, just 11% of cases taken to an industrial tribunal were successful - and a puny 5% for constructive dismissal. Amazingly, this is the system that bosses complain is "weighed against them" and is "affecting employment levels".

The Conservatives are mistaking increased turnovers with higher employment rates. Their new proposals will do absolutely nothing to get people back to work.

All they will achieve is a system where it's easier to sack unfairly and without scrutiny and a workplace where it will be even more difficult, often impossible, for an honest worker to fight bullying and victimisation or to seek protection against unscrupulous employers.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Youth in Revolt

Another hit from the new breed of US comedies: endearing and hilarious without relying on cheap tricks.

The last few years have seen the rise of a new subgenre of US comedy dramas.

Little Miss Sunshine and Superbad, but also Juno, Mama's Boy and Last Day of Summer were all, on average, less cheesy, more sombre and almost more European in their approach to romance and humour, turning a new leaf from to the late 90s/early 00s gross-out prototype of American Pie and Roadtrip.

Where ten years ago the template was the raunchy antics of testosterone-fuelled teenagers, and the soundtrack ska-punk and Blink 182, the new breed is more random, but also more reliant on quirks and black humour - and the background music a more subdued mish mash of indie-folk and alternative country.

And like its contemporaries, Michael Arteta's adaptation of the novel Youth in Revolt decides to focus on the life of a coming-of-age semi-nerd, a social outcast whose quest for romance is approaching desperate levels.

As always, Michael Cera is excellent in his interpretation. His character Nick Twisp is whimpier, clumsier and more sensitive, but also less popular and lonelier than most of his peers. To give you an idea, "I'm a voracious reader and listen to Frank Sinatra. So needless to say, I am still a virgin" is the way he describes himself.

Right from the start, the viewer is made to wonder how Nick can cope with his tactless family, a collection of a dysfunctional chain-smoking mother and her ex-con oik of a boyfriend on one side, and his "scruffy, graying father" (played by Steve Buscemi) with trophy "bimbette" on the other.

Nick's exsitence is so dull and stifling that even a short trip away on his mum and boyfriend's trailer feels like a welcome change. And it is there that, most unexpectedly, he casually bumps into his "cause to rebel": the all-things-French obsessive and teaser-of-the-highest-order Sheeni, Nick's only hope of finally reaching "the holy grail of manhood".

Except that it's not so easy. The way their romance unravels is just epic. Let's just say that, as the unlikeliest of allies, Nick is joined by his imaginary alter-ego François. Based on Sheeni's ideal man (a comically brazen, no-bullshit, badass Frenchman), he is trying to spur Nick into winning Sheeni over and compete with her supercool semi-boyfriend Trent. Needless to say, a chain of complications ensues, some more random and inconsequential than others, but all pure genius when it comes to their entertainment and comedy-value. More we will not say, as you really have got to watch it to get an idea.

Youth in Revolt is at once endearing and hilarious without ever being over the top. A truly excellent film.