Sydney Morning Herald, Sat 14 Oct 2000

Little choice but to give flicks the flick

Haven't the movies been crappy lately? What a naive question, you reply. Of course they have been. Nobody would expect the cinema distributors to waste their best stuff at a time when the potential audience is going to be glued to the box.

Why wouldn't the distributors use the Olympic period to get rid of embarrassments such as Battlefield Earth, a story for which John Travolta diluted his usual discernment because it was created by L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of his beloved Scientology?

Well, maybe I am naive, I reply (wondering why I ever began this dialogue with such an argumentative reader) but didn't you assume that once the Games were over, the distributors would immediately unleash all the pent-up quality, in order to get the bums off the couch and into the multiplex?

And yet last weekend's box office takings were down 27 perent on the previous weekend's - evidence that the punters woke from their sporting trance to find that Clint Eastwood as an ancient astronaut (Space Cowboys), Bruce Willis becoming a Better Person when he meets himself as a child (The Kid), and Ben Affleck having noisy sex with Charlize Theron (Reindeer Games) were not enough to pull them out of the house.

Well then, you respond, the good stuff will start appearing next week. Sorry, I say with the confidence of one who is bound to have the last word since he is writing this imaginary dialogue.

The only promising prospects on the horizon between now and Christmas are The Dish (in which Sam Neill and the makers of The Castle satirise Australia's role in the 1969 moon landing); What Lies Beneath (an adult ghost story involving a nasty Harrison Ford and a neurotic Michelle Pfeiffer); and Chicken Run (an adult claymation from the people who did Wallace and Grommit, using the voice of M Gibson).

The rest of the coming attractions look like material that should have been dumped onto the market during September. Either the distributors are dills or Hollywood just hasn't been making anything decent lately.

Prospects at the video store are much brighter. In the next six weeks we'll be able to rent Toy Story 2; a special edition of the mockumentary Spinal Tap; the humourless but worthy Angela's Ashes; Julia Roberts's surprising display of cleavage and conscience, Erin Brockovitch; the Aussie teen comedy for grown-ups Looking for Alibrandi; the sexiest Jane Austen yet, Mansfield Park; 13 episodes of the brilliant TV series The Sopranos; and, for the first time on video, A Clockwork Orange.

A collection of Olympic Games highlights comes out on November 6. Being a stay-at-home never looked groovier.

Footnote: Australia's televiewing habits slipped back into their pre-Olympic rut with a speed thaChannel 7 must find frightening.

Six weeks ago, this column summarised the nation's entertainment diet thus: "Australians love to watch people drinking coffee, planting flowers and winning cash".

Three weeks ago, that changed to "Australians love to watch people swimming, running and dancing around in iconic costumes".

During the week after the closing ceremony, these shows topped the Australian diet: Friends, Better Homes and Gardens, Backyard Blitz and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Yes, Nine is dominant again. Seven can take some consolation in having four shows in the post-Olympic top 10, and the ABC can sigh with relief that a short interruption to the flow of SeaChange did not break the addiction of Australians over 40.

But Australia cannot stay in this womb for long.

Last Monday's Friends was the season finale (and didn't it demonstrate how the writing of a once-sharp series has become as flabby a sentimental as Chandler?). Next Monday, Nine starts playing repeats of Friends at 7.30 and a new season of Jesse at 8pm.

Jesse (starring Christina Applegate as a waitress training to be a nurse) went through some desperate format changes in America last year, and then was cancelled, so we may conclude that for the rest of the year, Nine is happy to hand over the 8pm Monday slot to its competitors.

Seven's The Great Outdoors will probably do best at that time, but the ABC will hold the SeaChange crowd with a new season of As Time Goes By. And Ten is offering Guinness World Records Primetime for that huge segment of the viewing community who like to watch people swallowing spiders and towing trucks with their foreskins.

Another footnote: While most Australians were glued to TV sets during September, some found their computer terminals more adhesive. Neilsen//NetRatings, which monitors Internet use in a sample of 8,000 homesfound huge growth in visits to Olympic-related sites between August and September, with Seven's up 1,500 per cent and a sprightly little newcomer called boxingkangaroo jumping by more than 1,300 per cent.

A shopping opportunity called ebay, which is selling bits of kitsch called "official remains of the Games", was up 85 per cent. But will these sites have any life beyond today? (Please do not answer that question. You gave me enough trouble in the first few paragraphs.)

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