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An Open Letter To Anyone Who’ll Listen In Response To The Competition Commission’s Open Letter To Me

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This is a long post. I apologise again, but feel the need to be thorough. I will try to summarise at the end if you want to skip to that. Probably after a picture of a kitten or something. If you’re going to read the whole thing, no-one would blame you for getting a cup of tea, then coming back. People have written shorter dissertations than this.

On Monday, around two weeks after it loses the legal ability to make any material difference, the Competition Commission finally issued a response to the questions that I and many others had been asking them since a day after they published their initial report on the 20th August. That date now feels a lifetime ago, and so much has happened since, that it’s starting to become increasingly difficult to disentangle the truth of the situation from the many arguments and counterarguments that have raged ever since. And by arguments, I mean the views of the general public, several MPs, an MEP, at least two Lords, the most significant independent film body in this country and several key members of the film and film journalism communities, and by counterarguments I mean the position of the Competition Commission and my local MP, James Paice, who to this date is still quite literally the only person to have agreed in any way with the Commission’s findings. If you find any more, please let me know, I’m still looking.

So let’s get something clear. In all of this, I still believe that the Commission genuinely believe they are acting in the best interests of the general public. I still think they believe that if they had not acted, that consumers would have been left at risk of a price increase. Not an actual price increase, mind you, a risk of a price increase. Those that know me and have read this blog regularly will know that I’m fond of analogies, and the only suitable one I can think of is trepanning. Sure, there are reasons and occasions why this may be a legitimate and necessary medical procedure, but you shouldn’t go drilling a hole in the head of everyone who’s got a headache; you’re liable to do far more more harm than good. I remain resolutely of the belief that the proposed course of action here will do far more harm, and is far more likely – in fact, guaranteed – to drive up prices, reduce choice and remove the quality of service, than the substantial lessening of competiton ever would have done, and I’m almost more frustrated that the Commission can’t see that than their inability to distinguish on markets.

I’ve tried to remain professional through all this, despite having had to attempt to understand hundreds of pages of documents in a short space of time, many of it written in a legal speak to which I am entirely unfamiliar, in the face of a group of people who to outside observers have seemingly gone as far out of their way as possible not to understand the arguments being made to them, and clinging resolutely to their single defence and line of argument. I am now going to attempt to respond to the points made by the Commission yesterday, and in doing so I apologise in advance if that professional demeanour slips just occasionally, as it nearly did in the title of this post. (Also, dear reader, you keep having the patience to read this stuff, so I’m sure you’ll understand my need to make this as easily readable as possible.) Finally, I’m using edited sections of the full letter here; please refer to the full letter if you need further clarity – it might be worth reading it in full first before you read this if you haven’t – and if you feel I have misconstrued any of the Commission’s points by the edits I’ve taken, please let me know, as my intention is to try to clarify my thinking, not to cloud theirs. Portions of the Commission’s letter are in italics for clarity, and any extracts from the final report are in a smaller font.

Here goes.

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An Open Letter From The Competition Commission To Me

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After repeated letters to the Competition Commission, including letters sent to the Commission e-mail address on the 3rd and the 10th September this year, in which I sought a response to a number of questions around their findings, the Commission have finally responded to me via the deputy chairman and the head of this particular panel, Alisdair Smith. I am grateful that the Commission have finally engaged in dialogue, around two weeks after their decision has become legally binding.

They have given me a response to my initial queries plus a subsequent post on the condition that I reproduce it in its entirety, without edits, and I do so below. I will be writing my own response to their response tomorrow, but until then feel free to make your own mind up.

AN OPEN LETTER FROM THE COMPETITION COMMISSION TO MARK LIVERSIDGE

Dear Mark

 

In your Movie Evangelist blogs, you have made several reasoned criticisms of the  Competition Commission (CC) decision on Cineworld’s acquisition of Picturehouse. Several of your points have been picked up by other commentators or members of the public who have written to the CC.

As you know, the period after the publication of the CC’s provisional findings report in August was when interested parties could influence our thinking. The legal framework within which we operate does not allow us to re-open an inquiry after the publication of the final report.

Nonetheless, we think it is in the interest of public understanding to address the points you have raised. That’s why I am writing this open letter to you. It serves only to state our position on certain issues. It is not being sent to initiate a further debate. And we must stress that the comments that follow are not formal positions; our Final Report, published on 8 October, is the definitive legal statement of our findings.

Letters from the general public

It has been suggested that we have taken no notice of the many comments from the general public we received on our provisional findings of 20 August 2013. That is not the case.  We gave these comments careful consideration and indeed sought to address points made in those letters where we felt that our provisional findings had not sufficiently explained our thinking.

 

In particular, we explained at paragraph 6.5 of the final report how we had taken into account the differentiation between Cineworld and Picturehouse in our analysis of the impact of the merger. Similarly, we responded to your specific and interesting point on the effect of Cineworld’s Unlimited Scheme directly in the final report at paragraph 6.55.

Specific points

In your blog dated October 8, you make several points and ask a number of questions. I respond below to some of the numbered questions – although this does not mean that we agree with the other points you have advanced but on which I have not commented.

 

1. Was there no requirement to set a suitable threshold of competition in a particular area?

The task of the CC in a merger inquiry is to decide whether there is a substantial lessening of competition in a particular case referred to it by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), given a particular set of circumstances. Our task was not to consider the whole landscape of competition in cinema exhibition in the UK.

The CC is required by law to identify the market that is relevant to the merger in question.[1] The market for cinema exhibition is largely a local market, so the question becomes whether there is a substantial lessening of competition in particular localities. Indeed, cinema exhibitors told us the specific local conditions of areas were key drivers of their product offering. The report summarises the evidence we received on this matter in paragraphs 6.6 to 6.20. There is no simple rule which determines how many competing cinemas could successfully operate in a given area.

There may well therefore be communities comparable to Bury St Edmunds which are served by a single cinema operator, but that has no bearing on whether this merger results in a substantial lessening of competition in Bury St Edmunds.

 

2. The OFT’s initial report indicated that Cineworld and Picturehouse operate in different markets

This is not the case: paragraph 110 of the OFT’s report of June 5 referring the merger to the CC states: “The OFT has analysed the transaction against a market for film exhibition services in this case. It has considered whether it is appropriate to segment this wider market by art-house and multiplex cinema. The parties failed to provide sufficient evidence in support of their arguments that the product market should be further segmented, Further, a number of pieces of evidence including: survey evidence, entry analysis, price concentration analysis and film overlap analysis indicates that there is competition between art-house and multiplex cinemas and it would not be appropriate to segment the market in this case.”

 

3. Why is it believed that introducing another party to these areas will have the effect of reducing prices?

The evidence discussed in paragraphs 6.14 – 6.20 and the econometric analysis of the relationship between prices and local concentration in Appendix C suggest that the extent of local competition affects prices.

 

4. Why were membership schemes excluded from the CC’s analysis?

Membership schemes were not excluded from the CC’s analysis. In our survey, as described in 4(b) of Appendix D on consumer surveys, separate questions were asked about membership schemes. We agree that the Cineworld membership scheme effectively sets a national price for membership. However, the results of our analysis gave us more concern about future Picturehouse prices than Cineworld prices in Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. The Picturehouse membership scheme is different the Cineworld scheme and does not insulate members from local price increases.  The different cinema membership schemes are described at paragraph 6.22 of the Final Report and the specific point made by you about Cineworld’s Unlimited Scheme is considered at paragraph 6.55.

 

5. Is there any evidence of any other part of the country where competition alone is successful in influencing prices? On inspection, the prices seem to be set at a level more related to the general cost of living than the factors used in the correlation in the report, and comparisons with local areas with both more competition and no competition do not suggest any evidence of a strong effect of competition on prices in this sector. The subsequent fear is that any competitor purchasing either of the cinemas will not be able to be restricted from raising prices from current levels, and I would be keen to understand the Commission’s powers to influence in this regard.

As explained in the CC’s merger assessment guidelines, competition between firms is generally expected to create incentives for firms to cut price, increase output, improve quality, enhance efficiency, or introduce new and better products.[2]

In relation to cinemas specifically, our econometric analysis found local competition effects after allowing for local cost effects. It is the strength of local competition which will restrict a purchaser of the cinemas to be divested from raising prices.

 

6. What controls will the CC put in place to prevent price increases as a result of a change in ownership?

The CC is not proposing price controls and we see no reason why a change in ownership should result in a price increase.

Economic terms

You entitled a blog of  October 13  “A request for the Competition Commission to explain basic economics to me”, and particularly asked about “GUPPI”.

GUPPI calculations, described and used in Appendix F to the Final Report, on Pricing incentive analysis, are a standard tool for considering the effects of reduced competition following a merger in markets, like cinema exhibition, where sellers offer products which are differentiated from the products of their competitors. It is perhaps worth adding that the GUPPI calculations were only one element which went into the judgements about whether there would be a substantial lessening of competition.

 

Primacy of the Final Report

We hope this open letter goes some way to help you and other critics of the CC come to a better understanding of our findings on Cineworld’s acquisition of Picturehouse. We must stress again in conclusion that these one-off comments are intended solely to help you and the wider public understand our reasoning; and the CC’s final report remains the definitive legal statement of our reasoning.

 

Kind regards

 

Alasdair Smith
Inquiry group chair on behalf of the inquiry group and staff

 

E: Alasdair.Smith@cc.gsi.gov.uk

T: @Smith_Alasdair

Competition Commission: The Current Summary

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cineworld-picture-house

I have come to realise over the weekend that this whole Competition Commission situation is getting very complex. So I’ve tried to summarise the current research and findings in some short paragraphs and to answer the questions that I’ve most often been asked when speaking to people.

Summary of the current position

Cineworld Group plc, which runs one of the largest chains of multiplex cinemas in the UK, late last year purchased City Screen Ltd, which among other activities also runs Picturehouse Cinemas. After a referral from the Office Of Fair Trading, the Competition Commission published an initial report in August investigating the potential loss of competition. They confirmed their findings in their final report which they confirmed on Tuesday 10th October, instructing Cineworld Group to sell either the Cineworld or Picturehouse in each area to resolve the substantial lessening of competition (SLC) they believe has happened. Cineworld Group have decided to sell the Picturehouse in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds and are yet to decide which of the Cambridge cinemas to sell.

1. The current cinema benefits of Picturehouse which are at risk of being lost

Cineworld bought Picturehouse to gain entry to a different part of the market, namely the art house sector. At the time of the purchase they stated an intent to run the two as separate businesses and that the two could learn from each other while preserving their identities. So far they have been true to their word.

Picturehouses offer a completely different experience to a standard multiplex (multiplexes are cinemas with more than five screens).

  • The Picturehouse cinemas offer cafe bars where hot meals are served and alcohol can be purchased and taken into the screens. The findings from the Commission ignored the role these play in attracting customers, who are looking for a different experience to a normal multiplex cinema.
  • The cinemas offer a much wider choice of films, typically at least double the number of films per screen per week than a multiplex, and while a proportion of the revenue comes from films shown at both cinemas, the Picturehouses show a wide range of films and live events not regularly offered at the multiplex cinemas.
  • The Picturehouses also offer a range of screenings for parents with young children, senior citizens and those on the autism spectrum and their carers, as well as a monthly club for students with free screenings. Very few other cinema chains offer these services and none with the frequency of the Picturehouses.
  • These cinemas also support a wider cinema culture in the form of trusts and festivals that take place year round. Cambridge hosts the country’s third oldest film festival and all three cinemas have a high number of themed or festival-type screenings.
  • The cinemas are also capable of a wider range of projection than multiplex cinemas – the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse being one of the few cinemas in the country that can still show 70mm films, and they are reliant on existing expertise.
  • Without a Picturehouse, Cambridge and Bury residents would have to travel to London to see these films and Aberdeen residents to Edinburgh, none of which are practical options for most customers.

The only two other art house chains are Curzon and Everyman. Curzon has five London cinemas and one in Knutsford in Cheshire and Everyman has nine cinemas, mainly in London and the south but also with one in Leeds. While they do offer some of the above services, they do so at a lesser level than Picturehouses. There are also other true independent cinemas around the country who attempt to offer these services and come closest to the Picturehouse offering.

2. The cost of cinema tickets

The reason for attempting to retain competition is to control prices that cinema customers have to pay. The Commission believe that less competition is likely to lead to a risk of higher prices. They also commissioned independent research as part of their investigation.

However, cinema operators look at a number of factors when setting price, including what people can afford in each area. Consequently, areas with more cinemas don’t necessarily have lower prices, as the cinemas are all judging what customers can afford and setting prices locally.

The multiplex and art house chains also have different considerations on offering incentives and memberships to customers. The multiplex chains offer the following schemes.

  • Cineworld offer an Unlimited scheme for £15.90 per month nationally, which allows you to see any film at any non-West End cinema.
  • Odeon run a points scheme, where seeing 12 peak time films will earn enough points to see another peak time film. Points can also be redeemed for food and other items.
  • Showcase run an Insider scheme which is free to join and offers £5 tickets for Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday.
  • Neither Vue nor Empire currently offer membership schemes.

The art house chains also offer memberships for between £33 and £40 a year. While Curzon and Everyman offer customers two free tickets and £1 discounts, Picturehouse have three free tickets and £2 off per ticket.

Additionally, Cineworld and Picturehouse have dispensed with booking fees. Cineworld all other cinemas offer a myCineworld scheme which is free to register and offers 10% off for online booking. All other chains charge between 21p and 75p for online booking or administration charges online.

So even if another chain comes in to either cinema and charges standard ticket prices for the industry or the local market, customers of whoever takes over a Cineworld or Picturehouse will end up paying more. The real issue is why the other operators aren’t doing as much as Cineworld Group to compete on price, yet they are the two cinemas being penalised. While there is no suggestion that cinemas are actively engaging in price fixing, comparisons of local prices suggest that competition is not doing much to drive prices down.

3. The economic effects of competition

The Competition Commission used a calculation called Gross Upward Pricing Pressure Index, or GUPPI, to work out if there was a risk from reduced competition. What the GUPPI attempts to work out is how much profit a cinema would make from raising its prices, and specifically what Cineworld or Picturehouse would make from raising prices in one and then customers going to the other, which would mean Cineworld keeps the profits. The Commission’s calculations state that the GUPPI would be high enough in the three affected areas to give Cineworld Group an incentive to put its prices up, which is why they need to sell a cinema.

Aberdeen and Cambridge have reduced from three cinema operators to two (both also have a Vue) and Bury St Edmunds from two to one, as Cineworld now own both of the cinemas in the area. They have based their calculations on people travelling up to 20 minutes to reach each cinema. However, if you look at similar sized geographical areas across the country to Aberdeen and Cambridge, they only tend to have two cinemas, and areas the size of Bury to have one within that 20 minute radius. So these areas had a higher level of competition than normal, and the merger has simply reduced them to the national average. The only areas that have more cinemas tend to be those with a Picturehouse, which can sustain against the other cinemas because its offering is so different.

The independent research asked people what they would do if the ticket prices went up by 5%. They made the following findings:

  • Members of Cineworld or Picturehouse would retain their memberships and would continue to attend the same cinema.
  • For non-members at any of the Picturehouses, no more than 3% of customers would go to the Cineworld instead.
  • For non-members in Aberdeen’s two Cineworlds, around 7% of customers would have switched to the Picturehouse but over 20% would have gone to the competitor (i.e. Vue) or not gone at all.
  • For non-members at Cambridge Cineworld, around 10% of customers would have switched to the Picturehouse but 30% would have gone to the competitor (i.e. Vue) or not gone at all.
  • For Bury St. Edmunds Cineworld, around 19% of customers would have switched to the Picturehouse but 4% would have not gone and another 11% would have gone to a competitor, even though all the competitors are more than 20 minutes away.

Increasing prices by 5% would provide a small amount more profit, but the numbers of customers who would take their business elsewhere would be a loss of all of that profit and turnover. Additionally, around 30% of cinema revenue comes from the sale of food and advertising, and Cineworld / Picturehouse would lose out on this as well from the 20% or so of customers who had left them.

No sensible business – especially not one such as Cineworld which is a public listed company and has shareholders to be accountable to – would raise their prices knowing this. The Commission’s own research has demonstrated it would be financially better for Cineworld and Picturehouse to keep their prices in line with other cinemas, rather than raising them, and giving no economic benefit to selling a cinema either.

4. The question of whether or not Cineworld and Picturehouse operate in the same market

The whole reason for the judgement being passed is that the Competition Commission believe Cineworld and Picturehouse are in direct competition. They have received two sets of submissions, arguing for and against this point.

The only people who support the view that these cinemas operate in the same market are Odeon, Vue and Curzon cinemas. They all had contact with the Commission during the investigation, and expressed their view that there is no significant distinction between the two cinemas. Vue currently operate in two of the three areas under review and Odeon and Curzon would be potential purchasers for Cineworld and Picturehouse respectively, so could not be considered impartial. Odeon have also written to the Commission with a list of further concerns, including that they believe the Commission were wrong to find that three further areas – Southampton, Greenwich and Brighton – did not have an SLC and Odeon believe Cineworld should also be required to sell a cinema in those three areas. Odeon currently operate in those three areas.

Arguing that Cineworld and Picturehouses are in separate markets and should not be judged to be in competition are:

  • Over 600 members of the public who wrote directly to the Commission to argue against the investigation.
  • A petition which has over 14,000 signatories and counting, which includes thousands of comments from customers supporting this view. (The petition and discussion also received support on social media from industry figures including Mark Cousins, Neil Brand, Peter Bradshaw, Karen Krizanovich, Andrew Collins and Sight And Sound magazine.)
  • Letters from industry figures at the time of the original investigation, including Lord Puttnam and David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films.
  • Following the publication of the interim report the British Film Institute also wrote expressing their concerns.
  • Local MPs including Julian Huppert and Andrew Lansley have now voiced their concerns in Parliament

All of the letters sent to the Commission have been published and can be found here on the Commission’s website.

Alisdair Smith, the deputy chairman of the Commission and the leader of this panel, also confirmed in an interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire that he believed the two Cambridge cinemas would appeal to different prospective buyers, which would also question why the Commission believe them to be in competition.

5. The potential solutions

The Commission, as well as investigating the potential problem, were also required to come up with a solution. There are two types of solutions: structural remedies, which in this case would be the sale of a cinema, or behavioural remedies, such as price controls on the existing cinemas.

All three local councils in the affected areas proposed that they were willing to put such price controls in place. The Commission said that they were not a feasible solution, as they would be complex to design, difficult to enforce and would end up costing the Office Of Fair Trading money, and selling a cinema in each area is simpler. The sale of a cinema is also agreed by each of the parties to be an effective solution: the arguments listed above would seem to suggest that’s not the case.

So at present the only solution the Commission are prepared to accept is a sale of a cinema in each area.

6. Next steps

A group of local concerned individuals, including myself and those connected to Take One magazine, are continuing the fight. Since we believe that there are losses to either cinema being sold in any area, that the proposed solution isn’t necessary on the basis of the Commission’s findings and that that implementing this solution will cause more damage than not implementing it.

We will be writing to both the Department For Business and Vince Cable, and the Department For Culture, Media And Sport and Maria Miller to look to have this finding overturned. We are also investigating the possibility of an appeal to the Competiton Appeal Tribunal. I have also written to nine other MPs whose constituents have signed the petition looking for their support, but parliamentary rules state that MPs can only act on behalf of their own constituents, so we are looking for constituents in those areas – or any area, as up to 10% of customers travel for an hour to get to the cinemas – to also contact their MPs. We are also encouraging people to continue to write to the Commission in the hope that they see sense, but I am not personally expecting them to change their position without outside intervention.

We would still welcome the support of any other individuals or groups that share our belief, and the belief of so many others, that this is wrong, and please e-mail me at movieevangelist@btinternet.com if you wish to join the campaign or to offer further suggestions on what we can do to overturn this.

Review: Side Effects

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Side EffectsThe Pitch: You may be about to suffer severe withdrawal symptoms…

The Review: If you look in the dictionary for the definition of the word eclectic, you’ll see that it was updated a couple of years ago to read simply “Steven Soderbergh’s career.” Not content to be like namesake Spielberg and to successfully straddle the multiplex and more thoughtful fare, it’s as if Soderbergh deliberately sets out to distance himself from as many elements of his previous work as possible. Even his Ocean’s sequels varied wildly in tone, style and content, with Thirteen almost feeling the odd man out for being a little reminiscent of the original. When you use a phrase like “Soderbergh’s career” it has a certain finality to it and if the rumours are to be believed then Side Effects is the last time we’ll see a new film from Steven, at least for a fair while, so that Side Effects proves to be a surprisingly efficient and taut thriller and a fitting valediction for one of the last two decade’s most distinctive cinematic voices.

That his films are so recognisable may be down to the sheer level of work he puts into their production; over the years he’s written, produced and even composed and Side Effects sees him working as editor, cinematographer and director on the same film for the sixth time in his career. It’s a refined, almost cold visual aesthetic but one that is subject to deliberate rhythms and pacing, and this might just the the most effective combination of those three skills yet. It’s a slow start as regular Soderbergh scribe Scott Z. Burns sets out the playing field, with Rooney Mara’s Emily struggling to deal with the return of husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after a stretch for insider dealing. When she attempts to deal with her onset of depression in dramatic fashion, she comes under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who attempts to find the right drug to help her deal with her difficulties. It’s not the first time that Emily’s needed help, and her previous counsellor Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggests a new drug, Ablixa, might be the best option of those not already tried, but it may just be the start of Emily’s real problems…

Soderbergh’s back catalogue is written through Side Effects like a stick of rock: as well as the crisp digital photography and the economy of the script, which never wastes a word even during the deliberately paced set-up. He’s got form in the political arena, and for the opening stretch Side Effects seems to be setting itself up as a thorough examination of the cynical and profitable pharmaceutical industry that’s practically spoon fed to most of America. (There’s an interesting, and telling, line where Jude Law comments on the difference between his practice in the US and how different it would have been in the UK had he stayed.) But it’s also never that simple in a Soderbergh film and there’s enough twists and turns packed into the second half to keep even the sharpest audience on their toes. The more the film progresses, the more the narrative takes on a classic feel, and it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine Bernard Herrmann coming up with a similarly jittery score to Thomas Newman’s nervous stylings, or indeed the likes of Cary Grant or James Stewart taking on the Jude Law role had this been made fifty years ago.

Soderbergh’s always been an actor’s director at heart, ultimately as concerned with performance as he is with image, and most of the cast have become regular collaborators. While Zeta-Jones and Tatum are both on their third outing with the director, it’s Jude Law’s sophomore turn that anchors Side Effects, and it’s around 1000% more effective than his embarrassing Australian from Contagion. Where Contagion was chilling but sprawling and at times unfocused, Side Effects coils itself more and more tightly and it’s a showcase both Law and first-timer Rooney Mara, utterly believable as the depressive Emily. It’s undoubtedly a film of its time, with much to say about modern lives and current struggles, but it’s possibly writer Burns’ most effective script to date and it’s hard to imagine anyone except Steven Soderbergh working today being able to play it out so effectively, especially in the way that possibly sensitive themes such as depression and the financial crisis are not only handled, but then not undermined when the narrative takes one sharp turn after another. It’s maybe fitting that someone so focused on the image of his films is supposedly taking his break to work on his painting, but given that he’s still got cinematic treats like this within him, let’s all hope that it’s just a sabbatical and not the last we’ll see of him.

Why see it at the cinema: Soderbergh is a master of his art and every image and sound is lovingly crafted. The darkness of the cinema will also help focus you into the tightly wound tension that Soderbergh crafts, especially in the second half.

What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language, sex and violence. No argument, and it’s certainly a more effective film at this rating as it’s really one pivotal scene that earns this rating, which would have lessened the overall impact had it been cut to 12A.

My cinema experience: Saturday morning at my local Cineworld in Cambridge; having pre-booked my ticket I thankfully sailed through to the cinema, to be joined by the usual crowd of single men taking in a Saturday morning film with clearly nothing better to do. Thankfully we weren’t submitted to any projection problems.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: The film started twenty-three minutes after the advertised time, which for me was a complete relief; having struggled to find a parking space I arrived in just as the BBFC title card appeared on screen.

The Score: 9/10

Seriously, what is everyone’s problem with Die Hard 4?

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Die Hard 4
If they thought the mob was angry now, that was nothing to the reaction when the next one got butchered to a 12A…

Today’s my birthday (don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting a card or anything) and as a lovely birthday present, 20th Century Fox have seen fit to release a new Die Hard film in the week of my birthday. But like receiving a birthday cake that someone’s licked all the icing off, Fox have seen fit to send us Brits only the least offensive parts of the latest vestathon from America’s favourite retired bartender. The excitement that had built up in many parts from people seeing that this would receive an R rating in the US has turned to anger at the knowledge that Uncle Sam is keeping the blood sprays and the verbalisation of sexual denigration of those who prefer mothers all to itself.

It’s clear that those people (a) haven’t seen the trailer for this film, which looks shards-of-glass-in-toe-curlingly awful, as if Fox compiled all of the worst parts of the film into one easily digestible two minute package, and (b) seem to have forgotten that Die Hard 4.0, or Live Free To Die Hard as it was known across the pond, wasn’t much cop either. Or at least, that’s the received wisdom. But that’s not how I remember it. I seem to remember actually really enjoying Die Hard 4.0. But of course I’m mad, and the only one who did. Because everyone knows that only the first three Die Hards are any good, and the fourth is just a bit rubbs, innit?

The Prince Charles Cinema in London, one of the capital’s finest and most respected emporiums of cinematic thrills, seem to agree, sticking resolutely to showing the Die Hard Trilogy and completely omitting the fourth entry from their own celebratory marathon. And they’re not alone; the general consensus from what I read on the internet – which is always an unimpeachable source of fact – is that Die Hard 4.0 either isn’t a good film, or might be OK but isn’t a great Die Hard.

I’m not quite sure what it’s done to deserve this reputation, but further research on the internet shows how each of the films is regarded by the movie-going public and by those harshest of judges, critics:

Die Hard Rankings

So Die Hard is ranked by all as the cast-iron classic it absolutely is. No surprise there. But it seems most groups regard either Harder or With A Vengeance (or both) as not as good as the fourth one. Die Hard 4 is that exception that proves the rule – it’s a good Len Wiseman movie, with a reasonable supporting cast, if you overlook the presence of Timothy Olyphant as the weakest bad guy in the series.

So maybe it is a good film, but not a good Die Hard film? There’s generally four main complaints that I hear about the fourth Die Hard that make it Not A Die Hard, so let’s take them in order of quickness.

1. Yippie-ki-yay, motherfmpfl

What’s wrong with this video? (Rated 15 for language, except the last few seconds which are a 12A.)

Yes, much wailing and gnashing of teeth was expressed over the last movie and its similarly botched rating, getting a PG-13 in America but still managing a 15 here, even with the mangled ending. While I’m extremely frustrated not to be able to watch a film designed for adults in a cinema, where they’re supposed to be seen, the copy I have to watch at home reinstates the “ucker” and provides the much-needed catharsis for McClane’s extreme violence. But think about the other great lines from the other three Die Hards. Are they dependent on language offensive to mothers everywhere?

John McClane: [stealing Tony’s shoes] Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.

Hans Gruber: [addressing the hostages] I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way… so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.

Holly Gennero McClane: After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.
Hans Gruber: I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

Dwayne T. Robinson: We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.

Carmine Lorenzo: You’d be a surprised what I make in a month.
John McClane: If it’s more than a dollar ninety-eight I’d be very surprised.

Gen. Ramon Esperanza: [Esperanza has landed the plane and steps outside] Freedom!
John McClane: [punches him] Not yet!

Simon: No, no. My only problem is that I went to some trouble preparing that game for McClane. You interfered with a well-laid plan.
Zeus: Yeah, well, you can stick your well-laid plan up your well-laid ass.

Swear words are mere profane embellishments to what should be core values of story and dialogue, and if A Good Day To Die Hard is to succeed, it will have remembered this rather than relying on one tired old catchphrase. Or it could even road test some new alternatives, obviously without the swearing.

2. They are so frail, humans. So easily crumpled and broken

What actually makes a Die Hard film? Obviously it’s John McClane, fighting his way through increasingly testing situations. One of the key observations often quoted around the first film is how McClane bore the effects of his struggles, sat frustratedly in a bathroom while picking glass out of his feet, counting himself lucky that he hadn’t sliced through an artery and swiftly bled to death. Here’s a list of the number of times McClane showed similar difficulties, questioning not only his mission but almost his chances of success and survival, in the subsequent two films:

  1. He got a little bit miffed when he failed to save a plane with 200 passengers and O’Brien off Star Trek on it. But that doesn’t really count as it wasn’t about himself.
  2. Er, that’s it.

So this happened once, in Die Hard. Hardly a staple of the series, is it?

Additionally, John McClane keeps finding himself in these situations. He would either become hardened to it, or go on an insane rampage, indiscriminately killing innocent bystanders. (Which I believe is the plot of A Good Day To Die Hard.)

3. Location, location, location

Mr Takagi, I admire your attention to detail, but your model doesn't have 35 floors. What do you mean, the building doesn't either?
Mr Takagi, I admire your attention to detail, but your model doesn’t have 35 floors. What do you mean, the building doesn’t either?

The original entry in the series has an iconic location, so iconic in fact that it appeared on the first poster in place of Bruce Willis himself. The Fox building which became Nakatomi Plaza on-screen is almost as much of a character as a McClane or a Gruber. Since then, each film has seen a subsequent expansion, to airport, city and eastern seaboard. There’s also been grumbling that the series has consequently lost its focus with that expansion, but I’d counter that with a couple of things: it never did Grand Theft Auto any harm, and sequels do demand the law of increasing returns.

While on the former point I’ll admit it’s a bit of a cheat, I do think the continual expansion of the series has helped to keep it fresh. If we were just re-treading the same ground each time in buildings of random sizes (a skyscraper! a train station! a really large bungalow!) the Die Hards wouldn’t have lasted as long as they have. I don’t hold with the argument that keeping the location confined is a pre-requisite; many action movies, and Die Hard is little different, feature the protagonist and antagonist kept separate for much of the film, before a final confrontation. The first two have brief encounters with Gruber and Colonel Stewart respectively, but this is another argument where it comes down to character and conflict rather than a forced situation.

4. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a man in a grubby white vest

The last complaint that most often crops up regarding the continued evolution of the Die Hard series concerns the action, and most specifically this scene where McClane and his giant truck take on a F35 fighter.

The complaint here is again twofold; the unreality of John’s almost superhuman efforts, coupled with an excess of CGI. But if you look back over the series, effects work has long been a staple of the series, just at the level that the series could actually afford at the time. (Guess what? They didn’t actually blow up the rooftop of a downtown LA skyscraper. Movie magic, isn’t it wonderful…)

But it’s also about how feasible it is for a man to be sliding around on falling roads and flying jets. The immediate answer, of course, is not in the slightest, but is it the fault of Die Hard 4 that believability in the field of human endeavour has gone out the window? Let’s work back through the series to find where the root of the problem is.

  • Die Hard 4.0. McClane drives a car through a toll booth and into a helicopter, bailing out of the vehicle at a probable 90 miles per hour which leaves him very seriously injured. Or miraculously not.
  • Die Hard With A Vengeance. McClane and Carver leap from a boat that detonates in a massive explosion, about two seconds before it explodes so powerfully that the shockwave is felt miles away, undoubtedly seriously injuring them as they are about a foot underwater at the time.
  • Die Hard With A Vengeance. McClane and Carver are attempting to climb down a line from a truck on a bridge to a container ship, when the truck falls and drops them tens of feet onto the hard metal surface of container ship, leaving them both very seriously injured.
  • Die Hard 2: Die Harder. After fighting two leaders of the criminal gang on the wing of a moving plane, McClane falls off the wing of the plane moving at high speed, leaving him very seriously injured.
  • Die Hard. McClane leaps from the top of the Nakatomi Plaza, and after falling five floors with only a fire hose tied around his waist, the metal reel of the hose drops ten floors, instantly creating enough force to pull him straight out of the window despite his best efforts to resist it and leaving him very seriously dead.
  • Die Hard. McClane attempts to climb across an air vent at around thirty stories up; he slips and falls but attempts to grab onto a vent two stories below. Instead, he breaks both his arms and falls, leaving him extremely dead.

In conclusion, Die Hard 4.0 is the continuing adventures of a superhuman, wisecracking sociopath on a logically expanding wider canvas, featuring both international and family stakes based on a third large scale larceny encountered in just over a decade. As such, it’s not just a decent action movie, but an absolutely logical extension of the Die Hard universe.

Come back soon, where I expect to be reporting that the 12A rated, not released for critics, originally scripted fifth Die Hard film is a complete pile of cack, motherfmpflers.

Review: Bullet To The Head

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Bullet To The HeadThe Pitch: 583,800 Hours.

The Review: When you think of the name Sylvester Stallone, it invariably conjures up some of the greater, more hard-edged action movies of the last forty years. Yes, it’s been 37 years since Rocky and 31 since First Blood, and in that time Stallone has knocked out pretty much an action movie or hard-edged drama per year. No doubt buoyed on by the fact that contemporaries such as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have, Governating hiatus aside, kept going at a similar rate Stallone shows no signs of stopping, and some of his more recent work, especially where he’s gotten to reflect on the passing of time, have been well received. But every action hero needs a good script and a good director to elevate their work, and most of the serviceable scripts which would have been ending up in Sly’s mailbox twenty years ago now have Jason Statham’s name and address on them; no doubt a good chunk of the reason why The Stath ended up co-lead in two Expendables movies. But surely when the likes of Walter Hill come knocking, you can breathe a little easier?

When you think of the name Walter Hill, your first instinct might be to feel reassured, until you start to try to recall the good films Hill’s actually been involved in. The Warriors was good, 48 Hours is OK, and I have a strange soft spot for Brewster’s Millions, but after that I’m really struggling. It’s Hill the director that’s under scrutiny here, for he’s taken Alessandro Camon’s screenplay (based in turn on Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel) and attempted to weave it into a suitable vehicle for Stallone. To say it feels like treading over old ground is an understatement; Hill’s long had a fascination with cops and criminals and their various possible permutations, and the combination slung uneasily together here are Sung Kang (best known for the Fast and Furious franchise) as the cop eager to catch the bad guys, and Stallone as a rent-a-hitman with whom he forms an uneasy alliance while they attempt to achieve their mutual goals.

It’s a template that’s been used a thousand times before, so you’d hope that the casting would elevate this above the rest of the genre. Stallone growls through the film with the Italian-American drawl that’s served him so well for that forty year stretch, but Sung Kang is as wet as a dolphin’s bathroom and never makes either a credible ally or competitor for Stallone. The array of bad guys is somewhat varied: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje invests some interest as the criminal mastermind, but Christian Slater has clearly just taken a pay cheque having fallen on hard times, and why anyone is still casting Jason Momoa in anything where he’s required to talk or act is beyond me, leering through the film with a demented grin and not much else. None of them get anything of note to work from in Camon’s script, which is just join-the-dots plotting and as predictable as tossing a coin with two heads on.

So this is nothing new for either Stallone or Hill, and both have delivered much better examples earlier in their careers. Cliche gets piled on top of cliche, fights and action sequences come and go with little to excite or amuse and the banter is as weak as a baby’s fruit juice. Hill’s direction adds nothing, there’s one of the traditional opening sequences lifted from later in the plot before we flashback to find how events play out (uninspired both in its use and its overuse) and Stallone feels every one of his sixty-odd years. Simply writing about Bullet To The Head feels a chore, mainly because aside from Stallone and Akinnuoye-Agbaje it feels as if I’m putting in more effort than just about anyone else did. Bullet To The Head is as dry as a week old cream cracker and about half as interesting, and maybe it’s time both Stallone and Hill thought about checking out beachfront retirement properties.

Why see it at the cinema: If you want to avoid doing your end of year tax return for just that little bit longer or the paint you were watching has all dried, then give it a go. But there isn’t a single reason why this needs to be seen in a cinema, and hopefully a slow death on DVD awaits.

What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong bloody violence and strong language. In this case, not enough of a recommendation to see the film.

My cinema experience: With my wife on an early shift, I caught this at a Saturday morning showing, along with about two dozen other men of mixed ages at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds, all with seemingly nothing better to do. Again, sound and projection were about on par with the normal Cineworld experience, so the most excitement I saw all morning was when at the ticket stand, my salesperson advised me that as it was still one of the older style Cineworld Unlimited cards, my card had likely been cancelled (it hadn’t) and then promptly sold me a ticket for the wrong showing. That’s the second time this year, at two different Cineworlds, and I’m hoping it doesn’t become a pattern.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Another 22 minutes, which seems to be about the average this year.

The Score: 4/10

Review: McCullin

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McCullinThe Pitch: Photography: a window to the soul?

The Review: The 20th century brought us cinema, the collective experience of watching moving images and sound projected onto a large screen. Creative minds have used this innovation to dazzle and to amaze with works of improbable fiction, but also to attempt to understand and document the human condition. This particular documentary looks at another form of documentation of the world, but by the use of a single frame rather than a collection of 24 per second. Donald McCullin has been at the forefront of his art for most of the fifty years he’s been pointing his camera at not always willing subjects, and Jacqui and David Morris’s documentary attempts to get to the heart both of what made his work so compelling, but also what drove someone to want to take such images, and to make a career out of it.

The film consists predominantly of interviews with McCullin himself, including an extensive face-to-face interview where McCullin recounts his live story, interspersed with other clips of him being interviewed, including a Seventies interview on Michael Parkinson’s chat show. This recounting of his life story starts with his upbringing in and around east London where he first trained his camera on the other inhabitants, from the destitute to the more unsavoury. This soon got him work with the Observer newspaper, before eventually moving to the Sunday Times where he established his reputation as a supreme photojournalist. In the space of an eighteen year career, he covered many of the world’s major conflicts, from Cyprus to the Congo and Biafra, and from Vietnam to Northern Ireland, and his images sought to uncover the true nature and effects of those conflicts.

Interspersed with the interviews are a selection of McCullin’s images from each period, and what immediately becomes clear is McCullin’s gift for being able to find the perfect moment within each shot. While we only ever see the choicest images from the reels of film taken, without his innate sense of composition and his flair for drama, he’d never be in a position to capture the powerful images shared with us on screen. McCullin looks at both sides of conflict, trying to understand what motivates men to keep fighting – although more interested in the effect than the cause, as witnessed by the image of the shell-shocked soldier seen in the photo above – but he also captured devastating images of suffering, often of children caught up unknowingly in these conflicts. His candour is refreshing but also allows for some alarming insights into how far he’s been willing to go in the name of his art, getting caught up with mercenaries and being shot at regularly enough for the occasional bullet to have found both him and his camera.

If you’ve ever wondered how those taking such images manage to remain passive in the face of such suffering, then the documentary also makes it clear how this worked for Donald McCullin; it didn’t, and often a moving picture would have seen him interceding on behalf of his unfortunate subjects. Some of the images captured are by their very nature brutal, but thanks to McCullin’s need for compassion from the viewer they never feel exploitative, and taken as a whole they form a remarkable body of work of one man keen to expose the true horrors of this world and in some small way hope that the next generation sees this and tries not to repeat the mistakes. Two tiny quibbles: many of the conflicts (such as the Biafran secession from Nigeria in the late Sixties) are explained by means of black and white title cards which barely leave enough time to digest their contents, but this can be forgiven if you overlook them completely and focus on the content of the interviews and the selected photographs. As with any documentary, or indeed photograph, we are forced to accept an element of the truth portrayed to us, and certain occasional facts (such as the reasons why McCullin didn’t travel to the Falklands) may have other interpretations. This also results in a portrayal of McCullin almost as seen through his own eyes, but when they work as well as Donald McCullin’s do, that can be no bad thing.

Why see it at the cinema: Compelling black and white photography, blown up to the size of a cinema screen, is just one reason to catch this in a cinema if you get the chance.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong images of injury and real death. There are some image of death I wouldn’t say were out of place in a horror movie, but the black and white photography softens the blow somewhat. But that rating is spot on in my book.

My cinema experience: Arrived at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse cinema exactly on the advertised start time, which normally allows me to grab my ticket while the adverts are still playing. I’d reckoned without the immense queues for Les Mis, which had caused all three performances to sell out for Saturday. Thankfully you can pick up tickets at the bar, so I took the chance to grab a hot chocolate and my ticket together. The weight of numbers was even causing the coffee machine to groan under the strain, but it just about gurgled me out enough hot milk for a hot chocolate. Screening was half full, pretty impressive for a Saturday lunchtime doc screening, although that may have had to do with the limited number of screening opportunities during the week. Apart from one pair of noisy latecomers, a very civilised audience.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Around 15 minutes. Thanks to the queues I arrived around the time of the BBFC title card, so missed the trailers this time round.

The Score: 9/10