Monthly Archives: January 2011

Cinema In Retreat

Another One Bites The Dust

Caught this story in the SMH this morning.

THE closure of the Greater Union cinema in Mosman comes as further proof of troubles in the Australian film industry.

While local filmmakers find it difficult to get work, and film, as an investment proposition, has retreated from fashion, the closure has underscored the impact of falling audiences.

It is the seventh picture theatre to close in Sydney since 1999.

Greater Union’s owner, Amalgamated Holdings Limited, put up a sign outside the Mosman building last week announcing the closure.

”A business decision had to be made on the viability of the cinema,” the sign said, adding that the announcement was made with ”great regret”.

If exhibitors are doing it this tough, then we can infer distributors will be doing it tough too. It kind of puts paid to the old “get a pre-sale” method of raising investment from distributors. There’s no investment money coming back from the frontlines of cinema if people are staying away in droves. What’s worse is that not even Hollywood fare is keeping the doors of the cinemas open. Mosman cinema was your typical multi-screen suburban cinema that made its dough through screening American movies with guns fights, car chases, and simulated sex scenes. In other words, it wasn’t terribly a high-brow kind of cinema (which is not surprising given its location in the middle of consumerist philistine-ville, Mosman).

Without going into the issue of piracy; just as television took audiences out of the cinemas in the 1950s, big screen TVs for home entertainment, combined with DVD and blu-ray has killed the need to go out for the big screen experience. The unique selling proposition of cinema has taken a great hit, but it’s hard to see from where the next generation of kids who grow up loving the cinema are going to arise. It may be another generation before something brings them back.

It’s also not clear whether 3D is actually going to be the new USP for cinema – if anything it reminds us of the desperate attempt by the movie business in the 1950s to woo back audiences. What’s striking is that as Gen-X ages and stops going to the movies, the audience numbers have suddenly dried up. We’re talking about the original star wars kids plodding into middle age, as Hollywood keeps pitching product to younger and younger audiences to no avail.

If history is any precedent it means that the movie business as a whole is having to retreat back into a smaller, more nimble business. It’s hard to see how this will look in a few year’s time but the clock is ticking and time is running out. The massive blockbuster model of cinema may have to disappear if they cannot command the audiences as they did in years past. It’s happened before.

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Where Are The Next Bolsheviks?

They’re Too Dumb To Read

…and most likely too busy on Facebook, but who gives a damn?

Here’s an interesting article over at The Economist.

Class is also part of the conversation this year, especially in the Anglo-Saxon business world. There is a growing realisation that the pain is disproportionately hitting the bottom of society, an acknowledgement that it is not going to change soon—and, perhaps more selfishly, a worry that it will result in a backlash of some sort. Thus British businesspeople, especially those with consumer businesses, fret what will happen when governments cuts begin to bite in northern towns where many households depend on the state (either through benefits or as an employer). But the biggest worry is in America.

The two Americas
Take the views of two extremely rich Americans: a retailer and a banker. The retailer points out that his firm is now in effect dealing with two Americas. The first group are broadly upper-income and defined by a sense of mild optimism. They tend to work for the larger companies represented at Davos, which are doing well. Their mortgages cost less because of lower interest rates. They often own shares, so they are pleased by Wall Street’s recovery. They are not spending in the completely carefree way they did before the crunch, but, if they see something they want, they don’t pause before producing their credit card. The second, which he defines as middle- and lower-incomes, is defined by fear: they have either lost their jobs or they are worried about losing them. They spend money on essentials but not on discretionary items—and they are living from pay-packet to pay-packet. There is a clear monthly pay-cycle effect, with spending rising at the beginning of the month when they have cash in their pockets, but falling at the end.

The banker’s world is Wall Street—a long way from Middle America. But that is where he grew up, and he is deeply worried that well-paid middle-class manufacturing jobs are disappearing. He points to General Motors’ recent IPO prospectus, and the huge gain the carmaker has achieved by shedding UAW workers. “Frankly, I think those guys are never going to get jobs.” Wherever he looks in America he sees working-class males with little future.

Joyous is it not? There but for the grace of something greater go all of us – except you would only come to that with a decent amount of compassion for the common man. The fat cats are getting fatter, the haves are having seconds of whatever it is that made them haves. There’s a class war going on undeclared but prosecuted with great vigour by the wealthy – even Warren Buffett thinks so.

Put simply, the rich pay a lot of taxes as a total percentage of taxes collected, but they don’t pay a lot of taxes as a percentage of what they can afford to pay, or as a percentage of what the government needs to close the deficit gap.

Mr. Buffett compiled a data sheet of the men and women who work in his office. He had each of them make a fraction; the numerator was how much they paid in federal income tax and in payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and the denominator was their taxable income. The people in his office were mostly secretaries and clerks, though not all.

It turned out that Mr. Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. Further, in conversation it came up that Mr. Buffett doesn’t use any tax planning at all. He just pays as the Internal Revenue Code requires. “How can this be fair?” he asked of how little he pays relative to his employees. “How can this be right?”

Even though I agreed with him, I warned that whenever someone tried to raise the issue, he or she was accused of fomenting class warfare.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

The one place you would think Marxism might take root is in the disenchanted and disenfranchised of the most industrialised nation – left behind in the stampede for wealth – but no. In a land where socialism is a dirty word, there’s no chance that Marx or Engels even get a fair hearing. So much historic fear and vilification has kept it as an impossibility.

Not that I’m advocating an armed revolution in America. Simply that if the poor and the disenfranchised needed some kind of philosophical framework to carry into their class war, then there’s no better than Marx and Engels. Still, it’s strange that communism got beaten back so hard in America that people have forgotten what it was that communism was all about – and yet if the lumpenproletariat (remember that one?) really wanted to put fear into those bankers on Wall Street, then all they have to do is collectivise and march on to Wall Street.

It would be a fair fight only when the lumpenproletariat come armed with ideology. Somehow I doubt that day is never going to come.

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Public Private Perversions

What A Downer

The news of the week was the price collapse of Downer, which was supposed to deliver new trains about 18 months ago. It hasn’t, and as a consequence, the shares for Downer EDI went down 25% or so on Thursday, only to dead-baby-bounce up 5% yesterday. (It’s interesting how a dead baby metaphorically bounces higher than a dead cat, but there you go). So today, there’s this article about how all of the Public Private Partnerships have gone awry.

The cash-strapped NSW government was among the worst. If you had to concoct a list of vital infrastructure needs, virtually no one would have come up with a short tunnel from Balmain to Randwick.

But the Cross City Tunnel became a reality because the government needed cash and the investment bankers advising it knew they could sell the project to gullible investors. They worked the numbers backwards. They knew how much cash the project needed to generate, and then calculated how many cars needed to run through the tunnel to generate the cash flow. Brilliant!

And to achieve those traffic numbers, roads would be closed to ensure commuters were forced to pay.

These were projects designed not to achieve a public benefit, to solve traffic management problems, but to deliver windfall gains to a cash-strapped administration. The same process was repeated on the Lane Cove Tunnel and on the Brisbane projects.

It’s nice to see the Sydney Morning Herald finally spelling out just what has been wrong with this state under the ALP. This awareness of how bad these PPPs have been, is a story that’s been waiting to break for 15 years, except now that we all know how profoundly fucked they are, there’s nothing we can do to fix them.

Anyway, somebody I know has been working over at Downer EDI and the last time I ran into him, he was pissed as a newt spilling interesting stories about how they *don’t* work at Downer. He went out to a rail yard where they were allegedly building these carriages, and all day long he couldn’t see anybody do anything resembling work. The workers all milled around in groups sucking on ciggies. He couldn’t believe that was the rail carriages “being built”.

There were other stories which if I divulged here would probably cause a big stink, but the sum total of the stories was that it is going to be a long time before those trains get anywhere near running on rail tracks. Believe me, I’d love to write them all here, but I don’t want to be the Julian Assange of NSW rail, so you can all forget about it. 🙂

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The King’s Speech

Tales Of The Royal Stammer

Some subjects naturally lend themselves to interesting stories and when well written, make for good performances in good movies. You’d never think the stammer of a king could be milked for so much drama, but here we are with this film. It sure is strange to see a film where something that is like a footnote to a historic personage can be labored so much into this award-winning film; though I don’t know why I am so surprised upon reflection. More trifling things have graced the screen – why not a royal stammer?

What’s Good About It

All that English restraint that eventually builds to the rah-rah moment when the UK commit to war with Hitler’s Germany is all very nice. It’s a rousing little nationalistic film for the glory of the late British Empire in its dying days.

The performances are good, but then it’s hard to go wrong with Colin Firth playing the stuffiest Englishman of them all, a historic personage of a King. Geoffrey Rush was equally compelling to watch, although I never really saw Lionel Logue, I just saw the fantastic mug-work of a Geoffrey Rush. He has a fantastically plastic face, and his bad-acting of Shakespeare was quite delightful Doubtless he stole moments and mannerisms from his former students.

What’s Bad About It

I really didn’t care for the choice of the odd compositions for the close ups where there was less looking room than the space behind the heads. I know the looseness makes for a more off-kilter feel which is integral to the story – probably the sort of arguments they’d mount – but the bottom line is that they were more distracting than anything else. I kept wanting to re-frame every close up.

Also, the endless appeal to realism is a bit on the nose. It probably is a well-researched true story and everybody is interested in it being a proper representation, but there are moments where one is simply not convinced. A commitment to proper realism, while valid in this instance, is actually a little annoying in this film.

What’s Interesting About It

The bleeding obvious thing to point out is that it must be Oscar Season soon because the film garnering good crits features a main character with an impediment. Geoffrey Rush should know how that deal works out as he’s fashioned a formidable career since playing David Helfgott, schizophrenic idiot savant of the piano, in ‘Shine’. This time it is Colin Firth attempting to “not go the full retard”, as it were, as per Robert Downey Jr.’s admonition in ‘Tropic Thunder’.

As such I think it’s worth doing a check list.

  • Is it a period piece? – Yes, lots of fancy clothes get put on by actors.
  • Does it have a strong female protagonist? No, but Helena Bonham-Carter’s turn as Queen Mum paints her as strong and supportive in the face of adversity. That always wins points.
  • Does it have Nazis? Yes, Hitler is a looming threat
  • Is it an uplifting movie with a heavily moralistic tone? Yes.
  • Does the little guy win against all odds? If you think that the prince who is 2nd in line to succession to the throne of the Great British Empire is “the little guy”, then yes.
  • Does it feature horses? No, but it is the Royal Family and so there is always the hint of horses even when none are around.
  • Does it have a rousing speech moment? Yes, it’s all about that rousing speech moment.
  • Does it confirm the prejudices of the middle class? Yes. It shows once again what a nice thing the English Class system is and how it throws up such fine men as King George VI who can overcome a stutter and through association with such fine men as Winston Churchill,  beat Hitler’s Germany. And the Australian bloke who helps him out with his stutter isn’t such a bad person either.

I think it will win about 8 statues. Colin Firth will win an Oscar in spite of the smear campaign against George VI that’s circulating saying he was a Nazi sympathiser. I think the historic truth might be that a lot of conservatives feared the Bolsheviks so much they welcomed the anti-communist Hitler and the Nazis, until of course they started invading people and killing people. I don’t think King George VI would have approved much of the latter bits.

Class Warfare And Nazism

The more I think about it, the more it is easy to see just how much the royal families of Europe detested and feared Bolshevism and communism. If there was one message that had been sent to these personages of privilege, it was that the masses could topple them with sufficient motivation. This makes for a very complex terrain where on the one hand the rise of Hitler is detestable to the aristocracy because he was so common, and yet he presented himself as the great opponent of Bolshevism. This strange bifurcation entrapped many a conservative into backing Nazism.

It is in this lacuna of history that the abdication of King Edward VIII takes place as well as the on-going speculation that goes on that the Windsors were perhaps pro-Nazi in outlook. I have a feeling you would have to forgive the royals if they were a little seduced into thinking Hitler might have been on their side; afterall the Bolsheviks most certainly weren’t. Consequently, what’s more than interesting is how little commentary there is about Stalin or communist Russia in this film. It’s as if it’s ignoring the elephant in the room, all so it can carry on describing the class system in its glory.

I guess I’m a little bolshy myself when I see that class, privilege and entitlement are the backbone of the narrative of this film. It’s a little irksome to see the English Monarchy set so resolutely as the raison d’etre of the British state, and by extension the glory of the class system. Perhaps I am hopelessly the egalitarian Australian in that context. I find it hard to take on board the notion that the Royal Family is a kind of a priori good for the society of England when in fact it represents the central core of the ancient regime and the class system.

For the record, I’m not saying it’s a good thing to have revolutions or to execute Czars and Kings, but it seems a little disingenuous to think that these historic notions that led to revolutions somehow don’t apply to the United Kingdom.

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Little Fockers

Signs Of Terminal Decay

One doesn’t want to bag out Hollywood gratuitously if one is a filmie because it still is the wellspring of the film business for half of the world. I’ve always been upfront about being a fan of Hollywood cinema. Still, it hasn’t been good since the GFC set in and they curtailed development. This has led to a plethora of films where they were either the also-ran scripts prior to the GFC getting made, or ‘properties with an established track record’. The latter, in most, part has meant adaptations of books and comics and sequels.

Which brings us to this film.

What’s Good About It

It follows the previous film and loads up heavily on famous faces. Apart from the core cast from the first film built around Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller, it brings back Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand return with Owen Wilson as the love sick stalky friend of the wife. Added to this further are Harvey Keitel, Laura Dern and Jessica Alba who provides the freshest performance in an otherwise tired looking ensemble.

If you’re into famous faces doing cameos, this is an interesting one.

What’s Bad About It

It’s a pointless rehash of the first 2 films. We don’t learn anything new about any of the main characters. Which means it’s just another squirm-fest watching Ben Stiller’s character Greg try to live up to Robert DeNiro’s crazy ex-CIA character’s insane expectations. Consequently they’re all the same tropes going into these same jokes.

There are moments of levity but it’s a very empty film, even accounting for the fact that it’s empty entertainment that’s on offer here. As exercises in empty experiences go, it’s pretty empty.

What’s Interesting About It

After watching 3 of these, I’m convinced that Robert DeNiro – as funny as he was in the first one, is miscast as an ex-CIA man. He’s just not a WASP, and no amount of acting/faking-it is getting him there. It’s probably the worst miscast of DeNiro since ‘Bang The Drum Slowly’ where he played a baseball player from Georgia USA, or ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ where he played a Jewish Gangster. He was good in all three instances, but you never bought the premise that he was from these ethnicities, so to speak.

In turn, his best comic turn in recent years was when he played mafia boss Paul Vitti, in the first ‘Analyze This’. In fact the erectile dysfunction jokes in ‘Little Fockers’ come straight out of ‘Analyze This’. Perhaps it is against the ethnicity mismatch of ‘Analyze This’ that ‘Little Fockers’ has to be set against, because the squirming of discomfort done by Ben Stiller in this film is also a re-run of the cultural discomfort of Billy Crystal’s character in ‘Analyze This’.

The menace of Robert DeNiro’s Paul Vitti had weight, largely because of DeNiro’s career in playing Italian American gangsters. The menace of Jack in the Focker series is the weight of the surveillance state, but DeNiro’s recognisability gets in the way of that menace. DeNiro’s Jack is scary precisely because it’s DeNiro; and that’s a failure in casting.

The Post-Graduate

This contrasts greatly with the Dustin Hoffman performances as Bernie Focker. Bernie’s role in this film is idiotically reduced. He is the grandfather suffering ‘manopause’ who goes in search of his dream dancing flamenco. As pathetic a subplot as it is, Hoffman turns in a performance that makes it look seemless and smooth and thus makes the character believable. But then, Hoffman is playing a Jewish character who is comfortable in his skin.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Graduate’ because way back then, he looked culturally uncomfortable in the context of that film which enhanced that film, and perhaps paved the way for films like ‘Analyze This’ and ‘Meet The Parents’. It was a little more than ironic that he was dancing flamenco in a cultural mismatch.

Yet, one of the best moments visually in this film is when he ever so briefly squares off against Jessica Alba in a momentary flurry of flamenco dancing. It’s arresting and you wonder why they couldn’t do more of that. There’s probably a great film in that story: Dustin and Barabara are an old Jewish couple, but Dustin gets seduced by a young Jessica Alba who shares flamenco dancing. It would have been better than this film.

Jessica Alba, Seductress

If Jessica Alba came on to you as hard and fast as she does in this movie, what kind of man turns her down? It’s not a fair fight. I know she is one of the (many) women Derek Jeter rejected, but come on, there is no way Greg doesn’t succumb to that advance. This bit of casting and performance actually strained incredulity and I don’t think it says more about me than the film. You watch it and think, what’s wrong with this guy Gaylord Greg Focker? You do.

Robert DeNiro AND Harvey Keitel?

There was a time when you got both these guys in a film, it meant it was going to be pretty good. This is not one of those films. This is decidedly not ‘Taxi Driver’. It was sad watching the scene where Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel start arguing. It had no thunder, no tension. It just looked like a bad pantomime. It had nothing on the scene at the doorway in ‘Taxi Driver’.

I felt cheated. This kind of pairing used to mean something, like Ali-Frasier. Harvey still looked up to it in that his character was fresh to the story but Robert DeNiro’s Jack Byrnes looked foolish, and DeNiro’s never looked this foolish.

Erectile Dysfunction Medication Gags

It’s sort of amazing that the film spends so much screen time on erectile dysfunction medication. We already know that Robert DeNiro’s screen persona includes the legendary retort, “a hard-on has got be legitimately got” from ‘Analyze This’. ‘Little Fockers’ spends a good 15 minutes of screentime with DeNiro snooping, and then getting caught with it by his wife, then finding out he has an erection that won’t subside, leading to a parody of the ‘Pulp Fiction’ scene where a shot of adrenalin has to be administered, but in this instance…

You get the picture.

Everybody Looks Old

They do. Because they are getting old. The jokes are old. The story is a rehash. And That’s the post-GFC Hollywood of today trying to take as few risks as possible. And even with the shored up risk-hedging the film is a flop. It’s as if they’re trying to grab hold of as many demographics with one film, but reaching none. This is a retread of a retread story with retread stars of yesteryear, not living up to past glory.

You wonder where Hollywood can go with this kind of film making.What it reminds me the most is actually the Baltimore Orioles of the 2000s where they would try to build teams around guys who were past it. Worse still, in contracting the scope of projects so radically, Hollywood has essentially stopped bringing in new talent and new properties. By ceasing development, it has also ceased to do its own R&D for new intellectual property. The results we’ve been seeing in the last 2 years have been discouraging and in some instances devastating, and do not bode well in the long term. The product is going to get worse before it gets better again.

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Custom DVD Of Metropolis

Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis, That Is

Everybody who is into cinema at one point gets to watch Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ and marvel at the wonder at how far cinema has come. For a start, the commonly available restored version features a musical score that was written for the film at the time back in 1926. Yet if you are Gen X, then chances are, the version of this film that really rocked your world in the mid 180s would have been the Giorgio Moroder restoration in 1984 featuring the likes of Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar and Jon Anderson amongst others.

Well, I’ve been waiting for a while for the Giorgio Moroder version to come out since DVDs became the main consumer doodad for movies, and wait as I might, it hasn’t made an appearance in the market place through mainstream distribution. Chances are, it won’t either because now, you have people who have restored the original claiming copyright over the film, and trying to crowd out the market place, ensuring we don’t get the alternative version. How fun is that? Not much.

So it’s no surprise that an enterprising soul out there has digitally reconstructed the Giorgio Moroder version of ‘Metropolis’ from the extant available versions plus (probably) the laser disc of the Moroder version.

Here’s the link to Giorgio Moroder’s Version if you’re interested in getting hold of a copy yourself.

In ordering my copy, I had to send a photo of my copy to prove I’d already bought it, so that I could obtain this version as  a back up to my disc. It’s a bit of a legal fiction, but I guess it does the trick. I paypal-ed my payment and about a week later I got my disc in the mail.

What I’ve seen of it will blow your mind. Blow. Your. Mind.

Let me tell you, it’s out there. It’s so clearly a labor of love, and it knocked my socks off. It is so, so, so much more gratifying than the Kino edition I have.

So if you’ve got a hankering for getting that old Giorgio Moroder version with the pumping synths and songs featuring Freddie and Pat and Jon, I suggest you go to that site and order one up.

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