December, 2010

Black Swan

I saw Black Swan a while ago. But I was asked to sign a piece of paper that said a lot of things – mostly in dense legalese. As such, I wasn’t sure that I Was allowed to say anything too much about the film until now.
As it happens I loved it, and wanted to shout about it as soon as possible. But that was a month ago, and it’s still a couple of weeks from being released in the UK.
Black Swan tells the story of a ballerina, Nina, played by Natalie Portman. She lives with her mother, Erica, played with fabulous venom by Barbara Hershey. Nina dreams of dancing the lead, but she has to deal with her troupe’s French director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel).
With the last lead dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder), having been discarded, Nina is possibly in line to take over. Although there is newcomer Lilly (Mila Kunis) to consider.
Back at her small Manhattan apartment that she shares with her mother, Nina seems to live and dream ballet. Her room seems to be more like that of a 10 year old girl than a grown woman in her twenties.
That’s the basic plot outline. But this is a Darren Aronofsky film, so nothing is quite as it seems. After the relative “normality” of The Wrestler, Black Swan plunges us back into the semi-real where nothing is entirely clear to us. From the opening dream sequence in which Nina is dancing the Black Swan, a reality distortion field is placed over the entire film.
As we go deeper into the film, we realise that we’re seeing everything from Nina’s point of view, and that’s not an entirely reliable point of view.
This film in many ways reminds me of Aronofsky’s breakthrough piece Pi, as well as its follow up, Requiem for a Dream. We get his trademark slick cuts and terrific sound effects. Throw into the mix some very subtle, but incredibly clever effects, and you have a terrific mix.
The music is – perhaps obviously – terrific. Only at the very end of the film are the more familiar themes from Swan Lake dwelt on. I must admit that I hadn’t actually realised quite how long a piece Swan Lake actually is!
Portman is stunning. If she’s not nominated for just about every acting award going then nobody deserves to win awards this year. She throws herself wholeheartedly into the role and obviously worked hard at the ballet sequences. While they’re often shot from her waste upwards, that’s not always the case. And she certainly has the physique of a ballerina.
One area the film never shys away from are the rigours of being a ballerina. To that end, it shares traits with The Wrestler which also avoided sugar-coating the “glamour” of wrestling. From the cracking of bones, to the binding of injured feet, it’s all out there for us.
At times this film is a horror film too. We get lots of very grisly sequences, and when the lights go out in the rehearsal halls, a certain Italian horror director’s work does come to mind. The film also brings to mind Roman POlanski’s classic Repulsion. And that’s a good thing.
Anyway, this is an essential piece, and probably my favourite film by Aronofsky to date.

Click and Reserve

How does the High Street compete with the Internet?
Recently there’s been a lot of talk about how unfair it is that the high street retailers have to compete with the £18 VAT avoidance that online retailers can work around if they sell their products from the Channel Islands. That’s been especially useful for CD and DVD retailers, the vast majority of whose stock falls within this price point.
It’s where Play, Amazon, Tesco and, yes, HMV, all base significant operations (or outsourced operations). With VAT going up to 20% in January, that means those savings are going to be even greater.
But the one thing some shops have tried to do to take on the internet retailers is to offer “Click and Reserve” schemes. These give you the best of both worlds. You check the price online, and what’s more you don’t have to wait until the postman comes knocking to collect your goods.
If you ordered your Christmas presents just a little bit too late this year, you may have suffered from the parcels not arriving. And of course there’s always the dreaded “You Were Out When We Called” card dropped through your letterbox – as featured in Miranda.
So collecting the object yourself can often be preferable assuming that the product is not too large for you to transport home. Argos were the first business to fully operate this to the best of my knowledge. They have unique advantages in that they operate very differently to others on the high street. Their products are all carefully stocked and catalogued in an adjacent warehouse. When a consumer orders a product, their systems quickly know that their inventory has decreased by one unit. Their branches only carry a selected range of items (wide though that range may be), and they therefore are far less likely to suffer from what the trade calls “shrinkage” – the difference between what you should have and what you do have; the result of shoplifting, employee theft, breakage and paperwork errors.
The result is that as an occasional Argos shopper, I’ve never been let down by one of their branches. If they say they have an item in stock online, then that item has been available when I’ve gone to collect it.
While high street store also have prime retail costs amongst others to bear which online retailers in their out-of-town warehouses don’t, I’ve often thought that even with a small price premium, some consumers would pay for the instant gratification the high street offers alongside the ease of reserving first via the internet (the 21st century equivalent of phoning ahead and getting them to put one aside). But most other businesses seem to find it difficult, if not impossible to cope.
Waterstones, for example, will tell you about the stock of titles by branch. But rather than say that there are 5 copies of a particular book in stock, they just give a general high/medium/low indicator with disclaimers should you be making a special effort to visit a branch. That’s because many non-bestselling titles may only have one or two copies on shelves. And while they should be simple to find, they might have been misfiled on the shelves.
A couple of days ago in an HMV I watched as someone picked up a couple of DVDs from the science fiction shelves, and then put them down less than thirty seconds later amongst the keep fit DVDs. Why? I couldn’t say. But it’ll be down to an HMV employee to refile them correctly. Doctor Who fans will not be looking in the section carrying Davina McCall workout videos.
The white goods retailers are more able to cope with click and reserve since many of their products only have display examples in the showroom, with actual products delivered from an adjacent warehouse – inventory can be kept in check more easily. And yet, I’ve still had some hit and miss experiences.
Recently I reserved an internet connected DAB radio at a branch of Comet. I turned up later to collect it, and was somewhat disappointed that instead of collecting the item from a shelf of previously reserved items, the assistant instead went onto the shopfloor and picked the item himself. While I was satisfied with product, it did occur to me that had stock been low, I might have been left unsatisfied.
That’s what happened to me today when I visited one of those new branches of PC World/Currys. I’d reserved a router and had been informed it was in stock and ready for collection an hour later. I suppose the lack of a confirmation email should have concerned me (Argos is very good at that, as well as sending texts). But when I arrived several hours later, there was no sign of the router. Furthermore, a search of the shelves revealed none. While there may have been a run on routers today, I’m not convinced. I’d made a trip to the store and now wondering why on earth I hadn’t just gone to Amazon and waited a day.
Fortunately they did locate another branch with supplies, and where an assistant was much more helpful locating the router quickly and efficiently. Incidentally, it is worth using PC World/Currys click and reserve scheme if you’re shopping there, since you often pay less than the ticket price in-store.
Maybe I’m just unlucky, but retailers really do need to up their game if they’re going to compete against the internet. While I do an awful lot of shopping online, the in-store retail environment is generally much better for businesses. I find items I didn’t actually go in looking for, and I can be up-sold more easily. Even those awful extended warranties are easier to sell. Not to me, mind you. I wouldn’t touch one with a bargepole. And in some stores there are some excellent bargains to be had right at the end of the month. Like all sales environment, there are monthly targets to be met – worth remembering next time you’re buying a big-ticket item and want to negotiate à la Dominic Littlewood.

Ed Reardon Returns

Ed Reardon

Photo from BBC Radio 4’s Flickr stream.

The good news is that, as previously mentioned, Ed Reardon’s Week returns on January 10 with the seventh series (with a repeat of his Edinburgh special on January 3).
To promote this, Ed is writing a series of posts over on the Radio 4 blog.
At the time of writing parts one and two are already up. I suggest hastening straight over.
Incidentally, I wonder if Radio 4’s “BlogMaster” really did waste years at “uni” playing Dungeons and Dragons (or “Dragons and Dungeons”)?

Snow Chaos

Read any paper, or turn on any television at the moment, and you’ll see nothing but stories of chaos caused by the snow. Heathrow is still a mess, several days after the last snow. It’s all the fault of the Spanish owned BAA (I’m not quite sure why the fact that it’s Spanish owned is so important, but it’s regularly mentioned). Whereas Gatwick, which isn’t owned by BAA because it was sold a year ago, is doing much better.
But is that really the whole story?
I’ve no doubt that communication could be better, and BAA could invest lots more in snow vehicles, but it seems to me that there are a few other things at play. Heathrow’s a hub airport, whereas Gatwick isn’t. We Brits might think of Heathrow and Gatwick as essentially interchangeable, but for onwards travellers, it’s a transit airport. It’s much larger, and is full of planes most of the time.
Last night on Channel 4 News, they showed a graphic (4′ 26″ into this piece) that compared the snow vehicles of three of the major European airports to demonstrate how underprepared Heathrow is. Except that looking at the numbers, it didn’t look that bad a comparison to me.
Heathrow handles 66m passengers with 69 snow vehicles. That’s 1.0 snow vehicles per million passengers.
Charles de Gaulle handles 60m passengers with 74 vehicles: 1.2 snow vehicles per million passengers.
Frankfurt handles 51m passengers with 60 vehicles: 1.2 snow vehicles per million passengers.
So while the other airports do perform better, but not that much better. If Paris had twice the kit per passenger, then I’d be impressed, but 20% doesn’t seem so significant.
Aside from climatic changes, I’d argue that the real reason that there’s been so much chaos is because passenger numbers continue to grow significantly. Once upon a time, relatively few people would have attempted to travel abroad at Christmas. Now many more seek winter sun, or visit friends and family by air.
The CAA publishes a document called Aviation Trends, and the chart below is reproduced from their Q3 10 report.
Passenger Chart
Although in the last couple of years, there’s been an overall drop in passenger numbers as the recession bites, it’s still pretty clear that passenger numbers have grown by around 20% in the last ten years. That’s a lot more people to handle.
Could our airports and infrastructure do better? Yes. Am I making excuses for those who run our airports? Absolutely not. But I still think the screaming headlines in our papers and on our television are a bit unfair. And I do speak as someone who missed out on their big holiday of the year when an Icelandic volcano erupted.
Roy Greenslade is worth a read on a similar subject.

The Daily Show

I have two programmes permamently set in my Sky+ organiser. Everything else comes and goes as I choose. One of those is Sky at Night which normally airs at ungodly hour on BBC1 on a monthly basis. The other programme is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
We get new episodes Tuesday to Friday at 8.30pm on More 4, the night after they’ve aired in the US on Comedy Central. To say it’s the programme to provide social commentary on the world’s only super-power is to do it a disservice. It’s an exceptional programme.
The guests are from across a broad spectrum, including politicians and authors as well as a smattering of stars, and the programme places a spotlight on things that Brits sometimes find hard to understand: The Tea Party, for example. I find it indespensible.
Case in point: Friday’s remarkable show which Stewart dedicated to the people suffering from the political games being played by the US Senate over bills, in this instance, preventing 9/11 first responders from receiving medical attention. It’s an unbelievable situation that Stewart is almost alone in pursuing including a round-table discussion with some of those literally dying of the diseases they incurred as a result of 9/11, yet are being denied money for medical fees. Simply staggering.
Channel 4, in its infinite wisdom, has decidedly to effectively can the show. It’s simply going to broadcast the “Global Edition” – a weekly “best of” highlights package. This is the programme that also used to air on CNN International (I assume it was eventually dropped when TDS made fun one too many times of CNN itself).
The savings will seemingly fund more high-end US programming including the forthcoming US version of Shameless, as well as True Stories. While the latter is to be welcomed, it’s a shame that it’s coming at the cost of one of the best programmes aired anywhere, in any genre, on UK TV.
Sadly for More 4, they’re going to lose an incredibly loyal viewer as a result. The problem is that the channel is so stuffed full of repeats of Channel 4 factual programming that I’m not interested in, that I’ll never ordinarily watch the service. While it once seemed like a great channel, budget cuts have meant that it’s slowly diminished into its current state of repeating Grand Designs and other property porn ad nauseum, along with interminable garbage like Come Dine With Me. While some superior comedies like Father Ted and Black Books get multiple airings, these are getting too long in the tooth now. And the less said about the woeful The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, in spite of its sterling cast, the better.
So The Daily Show was, for me, the only opportunity the channel had to lay out its wares – use those programme junctions to promote the channel’s odd gems. And now it’s lost that opportunity.
I’ve complained to Channel 4 of course. In response (they were quick!) they said that while they too knew it’s a great programme, it “hasn’t resonated with the audience.” I fear that this is more a shortcoming of BARB – the TV ratings mechanism – than a reflection of actual audiences.
FX similarly dropped The Colbert Report when it became too expensive a couple of years ago – and this is very much about cash.
An opportunity arises for another channel to bring this programme to UK audiences. But otherwise it’ll be the internet or places like iTunes (even though it currently doesn’t have the latest exceptional edition at time of writing).
A sad day.
[UPDATE] As mentioned in the comments on the Media Guardian piece, state owned ABC will stop showing Stewart and Colbert next year. They’ve been outbid by pay-TV channel Foxtel. Foxtel is of course, a Murdoch company. No. 1 target of Stewart/Colbert? Fox News – a Murdoch company. I wonder if Sky in the UK will purchase the rights?