Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Change-Up


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.